"I'll just get my gear."

Soul

SOUL is one of the best and most ambitious movies Pixar has made, and they had to release it straight to Disney+ (great job, Covid). It comes from MONSTERS, INC. director Pete Docter, co-directing and co-writing with Kemp Powers, the writer of ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI (both the play and the upcoming movie), and it’s another one of Docter’s hard-to-explain emotional high concept fantasies like UP and INSIDE OUT, but this time squarely centered in Black culture.

The protagonist, Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx, and I honestly never thought of him as Jamie Foxx), is a New York City middle school music teacher. Not a bad one, but not currently seeming to motivate kids like he’s Mr. Holland or somebody. He’s finally been offered a full time job at the school, which impresses his mom (Phylicia Rashad, CREED) but sparks feelings of failure that his occasional gigs as a jazz pianist haven’t led anywhere and he might have to settle in doing this less exciting work.

Then, a stroke of luck: Curley (Questlove of the Roots), a student who Joe did inspire back in the day, suggests him as a last-minute fill-in for a small club gig with legendary jazz saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett, STRANGE DAYS). After some real uncomfortable moments, he nails the audition, he’s gonna be in the band that night, so he’s set to fulfill a lifelong dream.

And on the way home he walks into an open manhole. Whoops.

Here’s what seems like it’s gotta be the Pete Docter part: Much (but not all) of the movie takes place in a cartoon-abstract idea of an afterlife in the vein of INSIDE OUT’s carefully thought-out world of anthropomorphic human emotions. Joe becomes a blobby sort of ghost (though he’s able to maintain his identity via his glasses and hat) and escapes from “The Great Beyond” to the “Great Before,” where he’s mistaken for a “soul counselor” who must help prepare blobby, baby potential souls to begin life. They’ve already been assigned a personality profile and the counselors help them find a “spark” – perhaps a talent or hobby like soccer or painting? – that will complete their earth passport and officially send them on their journey. When Joe gets stuck mentoring 22 (Tina Fey, MEAN GIRLS), a notorious problem-soul trying to avoid ever moving on to the living world, they come up with a scheme to keep 22 in this realm and get Joe back into his (now-in-a-coma) body in time for the gig tonight.

It’s a Pixar/Docter trademark to come up with concepts that weird and complicated and somehow make them work brilliantly, and that’s what they do here. So much of the Bay Area’s supply of cleverness and humor is put into figuring out and succinctly explaining the rules of this conceit, how the transference of the human soul could possibly work as a bureaucracy, complete with an uptight auditor named Terry (Rachel House of THE HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE) getting Joe into trouble after counting all the souls on an abicus. Largely inspired by stylized limited animation of the ‘50s, it’s a realm made of pleasingly simple shapes and colors, but it’s full of different nooks and crannies of reality, including connections to the living world through people in the right mind state.

That’s all great and interesting, but more of the movie than you may expect is set in the living world, with the most vividly detailed animation Pixar has ever created. And obviously it’s new and exciting territory for Pixar to attempt to capture the experience of, for example, a Black barbershop – their first location to have an A Tribe Called Quest poster on the wall. Or a realistic New York City apartment, with an old record collection instead of, like, Woody dolls. It seems to me like they got those things down pretty damn good, but I’m not qualified to judge, so instead I’ll note that it’s also unusual for animation to deal with a middle aged, middle class man, in this case a single one without kids who’s not, as far as we see, worried about finding love. He’s just trying to find fulfillment.

One of the many things that seems very authentic about Joe is the way he straddles the line between cool and dorky. You can see him bore the shit out of his students talking about jazz and then impress them a little with his piano improv. He looks slick when he puts on his MO’ BETTER BLUES-worthy suit, but it doesn’t erase his mild nerdiness or his slight paunch. (He kind of looks like Michael Steele, actually.) He reminds me of so many real non-famous musicians I’ve met. And of all the gorgeous animation in this movie – from the creepy “lost souls” in the Great Before

to the overwhelming detail of the New York City streets –

the sight that impressed me most was a shot of Dorothea in the midst of a feverish solo during the gig.

The textures of the characters are photorealistic, but they are caricatures, and yet that looks like live action footage. I read that they studied the performances of the real band (led by John Baptiste), but man. It can’t be easy to animate the subtleties of the way a sax player holds themselves, shifts their body, tilts their head back, moves their eyes behind their closed lids, both moved by the music and the physical requirements of blowing air into an instrument… it’s absolutely incredible how true it looks. (Of course there are probly entire separate teams working to make the lighting, her clothes and her hair just right too.)

Equally effective is the way Joe’s surroundings slowly melt into a void as he gets lost in a solo. You can almost feel it. Since “the zone” is revealed to be a physical place that one’s soul is transported to, it makes sense for the ultra-realistic and expressionistic sides of the film’s style to blur together here.

I’m sure kids can enjoy this movie – why not? – but it seems to be speaking more directly to adults, and it has some pretty thoughtful things to say to us. The way it deals with the concept of the “spark” is surprisingly advanced, because it seems like a straight forward “find what you love and follow your dreams!” type of message, and it does want you to do that. But then it faces the reality that many people get what they think they want – even something pure like what Joe wants – and they still don’t feel fulfilled. The way Joe influences Curley, the sullen trombone player Connie (Cora Champommier) and the seemingly un-mentor-able 22, I was sure it was headed toward him realizing that in fact his true calling really is to be a teacher and then he’d suddenly be happy with his life as it was.

But it doesn’t do that! It doesn’t lay that on him. Yes, we can see that he’s a good mentor, but it’s not gonna pressure him to do that if he doesn’t want to. I like that.

But just playing jazz isn’t the full answer either. This a story about a love of music, about expression, but ultimately it’s saying that life is more than that. That’s where it hit me where it hurts – when it argues that being great at jazz (or writing about DTV action movies) is, while totally awesome and all, a simplistic idea of one’s “purpose.” And that too much obsessive focus on those things can get in the way of your connections with people and the world. I was excited for the Pixar jazz movie, but I didn’t know how much it would address things I’ve been trying to reckon with in my own life.

Despite that, it didn’t quite make me cry, like some of the other great Pixar movies have. But I love that the part that almost got me wasn’t sad – it was a montage about life being beautiful. Not what you expect in a movie seemingly about dying.

I caught up with several of the big newish movies over the Christmas weekend, and I liked or loved all the ones I watched, but I think SOUL is the one I’ve continued to think about most. I can’t recommend it highly enough.


P.S. This is also the first Pixar movie where I wondered if the protagonist cared that he was passing the location of the climactic sword duel in HIGHLANDER.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, December 29th, 2020 at 12:18 pm and is filed under Cartoons and Shit, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

15 Responses to “Soul”

  1. **SPOILER**
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    Of course, he’s gonna respect being right by the HIGHLANDER building. He said he’s gonna live his life to the best everyday. If he can’t appreciate the HIGHLANDER building, the moral of the movie is meaningless.
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    **SPOILER**

  2. Some people who follow me in other places, know what’s coming now, but I lost interest in Pixar around INSIDE OUT, when it seemed to me that they were making their movies unnecessarily sad. I’m not saying they are bad (because they are obviously not), but it feels to me like the beginning of UP ruined Pixar’s ability of being fun without making the audience cry.

    Around 10 years ago I read an article where someone coined the term “the mature moment” for the part in seemingly every modern animated kids movie, where we learn about some horrifying trauma and talked about how absolutely unnecessary it is most of the time. And I agree. I don’t think I liked THE CROODS better because that one teen talked about how he saw his parents slowly drown in a tar pit one day or Jack Frost in RISE OF THE GUARDIANS telling the story of how he became who he was because he died while trying to safe his brother or whatever shit they come up with to bore the kids and impress the critics for five minutes. The thing is, that Pixar cranked “the mature moment” up to 11!

    The only Pixar I watched after INSIDE OUT was TOY STORY 4 and I went into the movie theatre being fully prepared to have my day ruined. (Thankfully that wasn’t the case.) Not sure why everything else from that company has to be some kind of sad examination about what it means to be a human being, with at least 1/3 dedicated to some sadness porn.

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t say that family movies shouldn’t aim for ambitious storytelling goals. I don’t want them to be Dreamworks or Blue Sky, although I always appreciated those studios’ ability to crank out cartoons that are “just” funny in a time, when every other animation studio tries to be taken seriously, by coming up with the most grotesque qays to manipulate the audience’s heart strings. But “The new Pixar movie made me cry”, which apparently is now the headline of the reviews of every new movie, is a red flag for me, that tells me to avoid it.

    Sooner or later I might catch up on their other stuff. And I really don’t mind if you enjoy their current output. I hear all the praise! I’m not that kind of asshole that says “Fuck you for enjoying those masterpieces, because I can’t.” But sheesh…

  3. I wanted to love this, but I had a few issues that stopped me really feeling it, in the way I adored Inside Out. First, it was too similar to a recurring nightmare I have where I’m so close to scoring a goal/winning a race/being the hero when disaster strikes (I’m stuck in jam, my legs won’t move, get shot into orbit etc). I never really enjoy farce for that reason; I just find it unbelievably frustrating. I also thought some of the jokes were a little cliche: everything to do with the cat, hedge fund managers have lost their souls……a little lazy I thought. I found some of the “don’t let your dreams get in the way of the really important stuff” a little patronising too: “ok, thanks for that Jamie Fox and the animators at Pixar. Good to know that having nailed your dreams you’re here to let us know it’s not all it’s cracked up to be”. I really loved the first ten minutes….I could have just watched a whole film of that, as soon as they go into the soul realm I thought it was a bit of a muddled mess. I think I might re watch it to see if it just caught me in a shitty mood…

  4. This was definitely the favorite movie for my family of the Christmas break.
    I thought it was great- the concept and execution all. And Vern you nailed it, the animation of the band scenes deserves all the praise. So many movies both animated and love action always have problems even syncing up simple movements to the soundtrack, and this one nailed it.

    My six year old loved the jokes- when he turns into a cat, or when all the baby souls spell out the word hell.

    My nine year old seemed to grasp a lot of the more heady moments really well. But even more, he just loved the music. I’m not a big jazz listener, so this was some of his first exposure to the genre. But we have listened to some Miles and Dave Brubek, and he has enjoyed it all.

  5. I loved the aggressive trippiness of the sequence when Joe leaves the conveyor belt to “The Great Beyond” and gets refracted into a minimal, black and white world full of Time Bandits style space doorways and such. The movie dipped back into this several times (as well as the line-art-comes-to-life of Terry invading the real world) and it sent me every time. Plus the dreamlike synth score under the scenes not set in the real world… beautiful. I definitely found myself wishing I could be seeing this on a giant screen not in a living room.

    This also had a few straight up laugh out loud moments, just one liners that had me laughing hard enough to miss the next few lines–mostly in and around 22’s interactions with former mentors. I feel like I have to avoid paraphrasing specific lines here just to save the jokes for anyone reading this who hasn’t seen the movie yet, but… that was a first for me in a Pixar film.

  6. I gotta say, it sounds like 22 has the right idea. I’d have a real hard time convincing anybody that going through all the rigamarole of being born and living a life and all that mess is worth it. I mean, I don’t believe in the soul or anything so this whole mortal coil deal is the only game in town, but if you’ve got other options (such as bombing around a fluffy void without any responsibilities) then I’m gonna say go with that. Living is for suckers in my opinion.

  7. I wasn’t too interested in this one, because once I figured out that 95% of Pixar’s M.O. is to take something fanciful and unknowable (monsters, emotions, superheroes, talking cars) and turn it into boring suburban ennui/corporate bureaucracy, it sort of took the magic out of the whole thing. It all started feeling way too schematic in the way it chased “relatability” by pandering to the very middlest of the middlebrow instead of letting fantastic shit stay fantastic. That said, INSIDE OUT is the only Pixar movie I really love so maybe this Docter guy knows the recipe to make that conceit palatable again.

    Also the only movie I’ve seen that really nailed what it feels like to walk around in New York was INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE, so I’m a little curious to see the NY scenes. That sidewalk screengrab looks pretty official.

  8. CJ – I mean, obviously I don’t feel that way at all, and it seems disrespectful to a medium I know you enjoy to put those kind of limits on what it should be about or what emotions it should convey. But as I said in the review, this is not a sad movie, and the most emotional parts are about joy, not sadness.

  9. Majestyk, I can’t say for sure but I think you will like the NYC street scenes a LOT if you decide to check it out. I thought they looked amazing and also fun (and hectic) to be a part of. Good stuff on subways as well. And there’s an aerial view of nighttime Manhattan towards the end of the movie that is really beautiful.

  10. Really liked the experimental animation techniques on display here. Especially the sort of 2D overseers made of scribbled lines and the stark white on black of the conveyor belt to the afterlife.

    Good stuff. Pixar always delivers, They are acclaimed for a reason.

  11. No worries, Vern, I know that I’m kind of an asshole here. Like I said, it’s not them, it’s me! But I think I still sit this one out for a while.

  12. CJ – I don’t watch many Pixar movies but I think INSIDE OUT is a masterpiece. My daughter is autistic so it was an amazing way to help her learn about emotions.

  13. I suffer from heavy depression and believe that INSIDE OUT is the greatest, most accurate depiction of it, that was ever put on film and should be seen by everybody who thinks it’s just “being sad”. I’m a bit lukewarm on the rest of the movie (Pixar did “Mismatched couple has to find a way back home or else they lose their child” much better with the first TOY STORY.), but that part truly works.

    And again, I’m really not knocking the quality of Pixar’s output. I keep hearing nothing but great things about it. We just started to pursue different interests. That’s all.

  14. Hey folks. I mostly lurk here, but wanted to say thanks for for the reviews and the comments, they’ve been a force for good in a pretty shitty year. So… thanks!

    I loved this film. One little detail that got me – The Zone is shown to be set in the before life, where things are just potential, and above the plain where people get so wrapped up that they let their passions become obsessions and lose their soul… just some beautiful world-(metaphysics?)building. And then they use that to resolve a plot point! That’s just some great script writing there.
    I also thought I saw a lot of quantum theory visual gags, but I’ll wait for someone with more knowledge than I to confirm that.

  15. SUPERB! PIXAR once again knocks it outta the park with this amazing movie that’s a feast of technical brilliance married to resonant emotional beats. Further proof, if proof were ever needed, that PIXAR is doing oil painting while the competition is scratching out stick men on crayons.

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