REVIEW: Soul [2020]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG | Runtime: 100 minutes
    Release Date: December 25th, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: Pixar Animation Studios / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
    Director(s): Pete Docter / Kemp Powers (co-director)
    Writer(s): Pete Docter, Mike Jones & Kemp Powers

I was born to play.

So which is it? Do you live in water or the ocean? Do you wake up everyday content with who you are and what you’re doing? Or do you yearn for more because you’re too intent on achieving something you think needs to be achieved despite already finding everything right where you are? That’s life. You either live it or live it. You embrace what you have or you take it for granted. It doesn’t mean you have to make a choice between settling and starving. You simply have to allow yourself the room to stop every once in a while and take stock. Smell those proverbial roses. Because while you may think your life amounted to nothing, it has surely altered hundreds of others for the better.

The only way to truly understand this, however, is to step outside of yourself and witness the world around you. Check your ego. Check your dreams. And absorb the beauty and joy of strangers. It’s not easy—especially for those who believe bad luck has kept them from excelling at what they know they were put on this earth to do. Heck, it’s not easy for those doing it either since the dynamic between personal wants and altruism are forever battling within every decision you make. Are you going to extend a hand and do that favor you promised? Or are you going to cancel so you can stay home? Neither is correct. Neither is wrong. They’re merely separate sides of the same coin we often forget exists.

Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is so far from being the exception that you could simply call him the rule. He’s the son of a musician who’s possessed the need to be a professional jazz pianist ever since attending his first show as a boy. Not only is that a pretty niche career choice with hardly any actually viable in-roads, but he also lives in New York City where talent literally flocks to steal his one chance. So he became a music teacher to pay the bills. Did he want to do it? No. Does he want it to replace his aspirations? No. But has he changed the course of numerous students’ lives that never would have found their calling through music without him? Undoubtedly. This calling found him.

As Soul director Pete Docter (inspired to tell this tale after the birth of his first child made him question what parts of our identity are intact the moment we open our eyes and what’s learned in the following years) and co-writers Mike Jones and Kemp Powers (who not only co-directs, but also has an adaptation of his play One Night in Miami … landing on Prime the same day this hits Disney+) shows us, the crossroads between desire and success is fickle. The day Joe’s impact is undeniably shown to him—a young student (Cora Champommier‘s Connie) flourishes in band class on her trombone right before a former student (Questlove‘s Curley), who became a jazz drummer, calls with an opportunity—is the day he forgets it.

Why? Because that opportunity is the one he’s waited for his entire lifetime. All he has to do is run down to the local club, audition for his idol (Angela Bassett‘s Dorothea), and potentially join her acclaimed quartet. While some face these fateful experiences with nerves, Joe grabs it by the horns and delivers a solo that stops everyone in their tracks. But what does a dream come true like that truly provide? Can the aftermath live up to everything he’s imagined? Can it open an invisible door that turns his fishbowl of water into an exotic Atlantic coral reef? Or will he simply lose himself in the adrenaline wave and ultimately lose everything he’s built in the process? The latter unfortunately occurs more often than not.

The cost of Joe’s blinding excitement is his life. I know. It seems like a major bummer for the beginning of a kids’ film, but you’ll be surprised at how well your children can process weighty subjects like death (they’ve surely seen Coco already). It helps that the journey forward won’t be Joe’s alone. Had it been, we’d simply be watching a middle aged man too self-absorbed in his craving for more and ignorant towards his rejection of everything he had trying desperately to cheat a system that doesn’t afford second chances. Watching him con, connive, and fool the authorities where he ends up (fear in The Great Beyond has him falling into The Great Before) isn’t inspiring. It’s sad. He therefore needs someone to guide his way.

She comes in the form of 22 (Tina Fey)—the twenty-second soul ever created who’s intentionally languished in the ether so as never to be born just to then have to die. As her stewards (Alice Braga‘s Jerry and Richard Ayoade‘s Jerry) state, she’s had mentors the likes of Mother Teresa, Albert Einstein, and Abraham Lincoln. But rather than spark her “Earth card” to completion with that one thing she knows she must live to do, they’ve all run away in anger at her precocious indifference. So when Joe finagles his way into being her latest “mentor,” they strike a deal. 22 will punch her card and give it to him. He can then return to Earth and play his concert while she can remain in primordial stasis.

You can probably guess that things won’t be so simple. On one hand is another abstract line art custodian in the vein of the Jerrys (Rachel House‘s Terry) who realizes a soul has gone missing and vows to track Joe down to keep her centuries old count unblemished. On the other is the mystical Moonwind (Graham Norton)—a type of soul that deserves to be explained by the film to fully enjoy its absurdity—accepting Joe and 22’s request to find a loophole. What follows is a case of body swap shenanigans, cat and mouse chases, and introspectively heartfelt ruminations on what it means to be alive with all the laughter, melancholy, and profundity we’ve grown to expect from Docter’s films (Monsters Inc., Up, and Inside Out).

The animation style is gorgeous with a hyper-real, elongated caricature in reality and a zany, stripped down minimalism in the after- (and before-) life. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross‘ score beautifully complements Jonathan Batiste‘s jazz compositions while the highs and lows of what pure experiential and sensory engagement with such art manifests as a colorful synesthesia zone (which recalls another Foxx film, The Soloist) and foreboding, mud monster quicksand expanses of apathy. Sometimes the most successful of us are the ones who slog through the nightmarish despair of a rote existence no amount of money or material possessions can heal while those we believe are inert truly live their best selves in the moments between the routine. Happiness isn’t a binary emotion. It comes in infinite forms.

So while Joe is lost on his journey towards more, 22 is lost on one towards less. They must meet in the middle somehow to acknowledge their anxieties are holding them back from the greatness that’s staring them in the eyes. Life is here to surprise us. It’s here to shape us. Whether or not we’re sent into our bodies at birth with preconditioned personality traits doesn’t mean we’re also destined to be one thing or the other. We have the free will to take detours, evolve, and even choose to find our Zen on a street corner while spinning a byproduct of capitalistic greed. We can make lemonade out of lemons and find our worth in the simplest of universal experiences: a brand new day.

[1] ALL THAT JAZZ – In Pixar Animation Studios’ upcoming feature film “Soul,” Joe Gardner is a middle-school band teacher whose life hasn’t quite gone the way he expected. His true passion is playing jazz, and he’s good. But when he finds himself in another realm helping someone else find their passion, he discovers what it truly means to have soul. Jamie Foxx lends his voice to Joe. Directed by Academy Award® winner Pete Docter (“Inside Out,” “Up”), co-directed by Kemp Powers and produced by Academy Award® nominee Dana Murray (Pixar short “Lou”), “Soul” will debut exclusively on Disney+ (where Disney+ is available) on December 25, 2020. © 2020 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
[2] In Disney and Pixar’s “Soul,” Joe Gardner (voice of Jamie Foxx), a middle-school band teacher in New York City, makes one small misstep and ends up in The Great Before, a fantastical place where new souls get their personalities, quirks and interests before they go to Earth. There, he meets Terry (voice of Rachel House), who is charged with the singular duty of keeping track of the entrants to The Great Beyond. Determined to return to his life, Joe teams up with a precocious soul, 22 (voice of Tina Fey) to show her what’s great about living. Directed by Academy Award® winner Pete Docter, co-directed by Kemp Powers and produced by Academy Award® nominee Dana Murray, p.g.a., “Soul” will debut exclusively on Disney+ (where Disney+ is available) on December 25, 2020. ©2020 Disney/Pixar. All rights reserved.
[3] In Disney and Pixar’s “Soul,” a middle-school band teacher named Joe Gardner gets the chance of a lifetime to play the piano in a jazz quartet headed by the great Dorothea Williams. Featuring Jamie Foxx as the voice of Joe Gardner, and Angela Bassett as the voice of Dorothea, “Soul” will debut exclusively on Disney+ (where Disney+ is available) on December 25, 2020. © 2020 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

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