Published on December 28th, 2020 | by Craig Silliphant0
If you need a palate cleanser after the wanton nightmare that was Wonder Woman 1984, Pixar’s got a movie with a little Soul for you.
What were you put on Earth to do?
That’s the question at the heart of Soul, the new Pixar film from director Pete Docter.
Joe, a middle school band teacher, played with heart by Jamie Foxx, laments where he ended up in life. He dreamed of being a professional jazz musician like his father, but he just never got the break he needed. He feels he has settled in life, teaching, not doing. (Without giving too much away) Joe travels to another realm, where he has to teach a difficult new soul, played by Tina Fey, how to find her spark so she can be born on Earth. And he needs to do it in time to get back for the big show at a New York jazz club that could change his life.
I’ve had a lot of conversations in the last week with friends and readers about Tenet and Wonder Woman 1984, both movies that attempt to build worlds or concepts that end up being convoluted or poorly communicated, pulling you out of the movie. Soul stands in stark relief to this. It’s worldbuilding feels effortless. It gives you imaginative new concepts to chew on, while propelling the story forward. Yet, it never feels like it’s hard to understand or that if you pull at too many threads, the sweater of the story will pull apart. It’s no surprise that Docter was also responsible for Inside Out, which operates in a similar manner. Inside Out looks at how we deal with life through a colourful personification of our emotions. Soul takes on existential crisis by looking at the meaning of life, but also chuckles at that very human concept in the face of a universe we can’t possibly comprehend.
So, yeah, pretty heady stuff for a kids movie.
The movie buzzes along with fun characters and some great voice talent (Phylicia Rashad, I have missed you). It once again proves that Pixar knows that family entertainment doesn’t just mean ‘a kids movie with goofy talking mammoths’ or whatever. It means that every audience member, regardless of age, can find something to latch onto. A story that operates on deeper levels to adults, but still makes sense and seems fun to a little kid. Even if they don’t get what an existential crisis is, they can see characters in pain, or joy, or sadness. There’s nothing wrong with a talking mammoth sometimes, but I love entertainment that can operate on both levels. It can entertain and teach, growing young minds to understand bigger concepts like the universe and death, or compassion and sorrow.
Of course, the movie also looks beautiful. The realms beyond Earth are as alien as a science fiction film, but also comfortable and pleasing. I have to believe that the staircase to the other side was borrowed from the excellent Powell & Pressburger film, A Matter of Life and Death. In fact, a good chunk of the plot is cribbed from that film. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Docter is a big fan. Powell & Pressburger were known for their amazing visuals; Soul does them justice. I should also mention that the film also wonderfully captures the sights and sounds of New York City, teeming with life, one of my favourite places on Earth.
My only real criticism of the film is that it was fairly predictable early on in its Mr. Holland’s Opus leanings. However, they don’t hit you over the head with that, and there are still some surprises to be found. Soul also manages to be emotional without being overly saccharine or manipulating you in unearned ways.
Legendary Jazzman Miles Davis once said, “For me, music and life are all about style.” Soul tells us a story about music and life, and it has plenty of style to spare.
WARNING — THAR BE SPOILERS HERE!
One more criticism — he should have gone to the afterlife. The film tacks on a last-second happy ending, which not only negates his sacrifice, but undoes his acceptance of his death and everything that means to the narrative. It would have been much more emotional for him to take the Stairway to Heaven knowing he had done the right thing and that 22 would live a good life. (As a side note, Stairway to Heaven was the alternate title of A Matter of Life and Death).