“Soul” – After your death, you will be what you were before your birth.” – Arthur Schopenhauer, German philosopher
Pixar embraces amusing visual merriment, the kind that only animated films can bring, and turn to “Cars” (2006), “Monsters, Inc.” (2001), and “Toy Story” (1995) as some chief examples. Well, Tom Hanks could’ve dressed up as a cowboy doll in live-action versions of the “Toy Story” franchise, but I don’t know. I’ve seen horror-show glimpses of “Teletubbies” (1997 – 2001) and grew up on the Sid and Marty Krofft’s bizarre acid trips like “The Buggaloos” (1970 – 1971), “H.R. Pufnstuf” (1969-1970), and “Sigmund and the Sea Monsters” (1973 – 1974), so cartoon renditions of Woody and the rest of his plastic and furry pals – in retrospect – seems like the right call.
Don’t you agree?
As playful and amusing as Pixar movies are, the more cerebral, grown-up stories – like “WALL-E” (2008) and “Inside Out” (2015) – seem to resonate a bit more. “Soul” beautifully falls into this treasured category, as writers/directors Peter Docter and Kemp Powers explore two elaborate concepts: life’s meaning and existence before and after it. Sure, that sounds simple enough, and if the directors can solve global warming, end racism, and eliminate all nuclear weapons, that would be greaaaaat.
Well, philosophers have opined on (and feverishly debated) the aforementioned topics for thousands of years, but Docter, Powers, and co-screenwriter Mike Jones certainly offer plausible explanations through a remarkably accessible tale set in New York City, The Great Beyond, and The Great Before (which was renamed to the You Seminar) in one of the very best films of the year.
It’s present-day in The Big Apple, but Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) doesn’t feel that he’s living his best days. He’s a part-time middle school band teacher, and most of his students aren’t exactly lighting up the classroom or mistaken for the New York Philharmonic. Joe, however, discovers that the school hires him as a full-time instructor, but he finds this promotion is the last nail in his jazz-dreams coffin.
Mr. Gardner is pushing 40 and has plugged towards a jazz pianist career for years and years. By spending even more time educating teens in the ways of harmonies, cooperation, and musical synergies, playing piano in front of packed, late-night audiences will never happen, at least that’s his take.
Without warning, Joe catches his big break, and he’s anchored a spot with the celebrated Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) and her band. Yes, Joe will play at The Half Note, and he’s finally reached his lifetime goal. Then again, timing is everything, and he – just as suddenly – perishes (or he seems to) through a tragic accident.
As Alanis Morissette would say, “Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think.”
Our hero’s body morphs into a petite, oblong, and glowing figure with a “Ghostbusters” (1984) ghost hue. This is Joe’s soul, but he still sports his trademark glasses and hat. Now, Joe/Joe’s soul is standing on a massive, interstellar escalator pointing to a giant ball of light. What about his gig with Dorothea? His life in NYC was about to take off, and now….what is this? So, our bluish/greenish guy plots – anyway he can – to return to Earth and resume his highest aspirations.
Easier said than done.
Joe tries to gain his bearings in this out-of-this-world place, an indescribable cross between Alice in Wonderland, Avatar, a dozen Dr. Seuss stories, Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, and Tron. Quantum physics and refracted realities buddy up with soothing feelings, giggles, and a never-ending, extra-terrestrial university campus. Time has a different meaning here, like relying on social plans in Hawaii, and explanations come fast and furious through several chalk-drawing chaperones who are all named Jerry. Keeping up with the actors’ voices behind the Jerrys is fairly impossible, so my advice is not to try. Just relax and absorb the good vibes, because not only are several Jerrys in attendance, but famous cultural personalities are too.
Enjoy their three-second cameos.
For Joe to even have a chance to return to New York, he has to break a few rules and play ball too. The Jerrys assign him a soul-in-training for Earth, and in the You Seminar, these celestial beings are numbered in the billions. This particular one has existed for thousands of years, so she’s # 22 (Tina Fey), and of course, she delivers one-liners with the speedy efficiency and wit of a Weekend Update skit.
Let’s not spoil too much. Let’s say that # 22 and Joe need to learn from each other.
“Soul” – with the help from a marvelous cast, including Daveed Diggs, June Squibb, Phylicia Rashad, Richard Ayoade, Graham Norton, and Rachel House – offers tangible life lessons, ones that we’ve been told a thousand times, but never presented like this, all within a nifty runtime of under 100 minutes. Docter, Powers, Foxx, and Fey offer a gentle, thoughtful look at humanity, and it turns out that in 2020, “Soul” is the warm chicken soup and philosophical hug that we need right now.
Oh, Pixar, you’ve done it again.
⭐⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Image and Trailer credits: Pixar