Joe Gardner is a middle-aged substitute middle school band teacher who has dreamed of being a full-time jazz musician all his life, despite the disapproval of his mother. When one of Joe's former students provides him an opportunity to truly make it in the industry by performing in a famous jazz quartet, Joe thinks that his life is finally about to begin.
However a freak accident forces Joe's soul out of his body only a few hours before the performance and into The Great Before, a holding area where souls discover their personalities before they begin their lives on Earth. Desperate to return to Earth before the concert, Joe teams up with 22, a disgruntled soul who doesn't want to go to Earth nor sees any purpose in living at all, to return him to his body. Along the way, the two will discover what it truly means to live a fulfilling life.
A little bit of context for this review. I hadn't initially planned on reviewing Soul due to my mind not really thinking of it like a theatrical release. However whilst writing my annual statistics article that I release at the beginning of the year, I was reminded of my pledge to review more new content alongside the more nostalgic pieces as well. Obviously the clusterfuck that was 2020 really put a damper on that intention but I really wanted to commit to that pledge in 2021.
To that end, I decided that Soul was likely going to be the perfect new release to really start out the new year on. I ended up watching it with my little sister, who does not possess the formal film education that I do, having a greater focus on literary theory, and so had a less formal cinematic critique of the film. It should then surprise you to know that the both of us found Soul to be a powerfully engaging, entertaining, and moving piece of art; easily standing as some of the best work that either Disney or Pixar has offered in recent memory.
Right off the bat, I think we can't avoid comparing this film in many ways to Inside Out which focuses somewhat on the exploration of personalities and what it means to feel certain emotions. Soul explores the concept of life from a more spiritual place rather than a psychological one, a position that is also expanded upon by focusing upon character in the midst of a mid-life crisis rather than early teenage years. Joe Gardner, played by Jamie Foxx, is immensely relatable and his fear of living a wasted life is one that I think resonates with many of my fellow millennials. I know that his struggle and race to finally live his life is a sensation that truly touches me on an emotional level. He feels like a fully actualized individual, like a real person living in New York City with hopes and dreams and fears and you connect with him very quickly. His connections to the denizens of New York City, including his mother and student, really help to ground the emotional core of the movie and lead to some of the most inspired and heart-wrenching pieces. As a white man, I cannot in good conscience comment on the representation of black culture that is presented in this film in terms of accuracy. I can only state that experiencing Joe's world from his (and 22's) life was absolutely enhanced by the very human individuals that he meets along the way.
Soul is a film brimming with heart and, for lack of a better term, soul. Though the film does possess a "villain" of sorts, the character of Terry is by no means an essential part of the film (though I did find the Jerry's being essentially anthropomorphic representations of the strings in string theory to be incredibly clever and subtle bit of scientific humor). The true conflict of the film lies in the relationship between not only Joe and 22, but also between those two and living world itself. Watching Joe and 22 travel through New York City and prepare for Joe's concert is one of the emotional highlights of the movie and I think will easily stand as a memorable sequence in Disney/Pixar history. 22 really captures the joys of simply living in the now and helped paint even the grime and grit of New York City into a sensation of unfettered beauty.
On that note, let's actually talk about 22 for a second. Voiced by Tina Fey, I know that a lot of people, including myself, were terrified that she was going to play 22 as this annoyingly mean-spirited character that was just going to be completely unsympathetic. Thankfully this was not the case and 22 really becomes the center of the story. It is her struggle and desires that we uncover and through her interactions with Joe and his interaction with her that a truly lovely tale of living life to the fullest becomes manifest. I loved Tina Fey in the film and found her to truly be the stand out performance. The fact that she additionally had some of the best jokes in the whole entire film is just icing on the cake.
|(From left to right: 22, Joe, & Moonwind)|
I mentioned the side characters a little bit earlier, but they really do come into their own. Moonwind is just an absolute blast and I found his connection to between the real and "spiritual" world to be a fascinating concept to explore. The manifestation of "flow state" and showing how it can so easily become consumed into a meaningless obsession is essential for the finale. Dorothea Williams and her Jazz Quartet form the "goal" as it were for Joe Gardner and while they are very minor for the most part, Dorothea Williams' Ocean quote is perfectly handled and really pushed the film into its third act by shifting the stories focus away from Joe Gardner and onto the real emotional heart of the film: 22.
But to sell the power of that emotional story, the film needs to make the world of Soul
beautiful enough to want to live in and Disney/Pixar accomplished that in spades. The combination of music and visuals come together to make vibrant, passionate, and living world with both beauty and ugliness (which only helps to highlight the beauty). The deep tie to music was something that my sister and I both almost immediately caught and it really helped to tie the overall theme into a tangible emotional release. The consistent imagery of strings throughout the world of The Great Beyond and the Great Before really was inspired and help fit the musical aesthetic. I've always loved jazz and that style forms the backbone of the musical identity of the film and I absolutely adore it. I know that my sister immediately went out to listen to the soundtrack alone after the film ended.
|Joe and his father's relationship is vital for understanding his character.|
Soul is a deeply emotional piece. I heard someone describe it as the first ten minutes of Up stretched out to an hour and fifty minutes. Whilst I might not quite go that far, their is a level of honesty and truth on display in this film that I rarely seen in any film, let alone an animated film. The fears of Joe Gardner are fears that I resonate with. The fear of a wasted life is one of great anxieties and something that I've been working through personally for the last few years, with the help of personal therapists and coping mechanisms. Soul is a film that doesn't provide answers to the philosophical questions it poses, but rather paints a beautiful narrative that, in many ways, provides a roadmap for others to explore those questions on their own. A journey that I would be more than happy to take with this film helping along the way.
Soul does not have a resolution like most animated films. We don't see everything work out for Joe and 22 and all their dreams come true. But the movie is all the stronger for it, in my opinion. The point of the film isn't for Joe's dream to come true and for him to live happily ever after because life doesn't work like that; but rather for him to, as the movie so eloquently puts it, live every moment of his life. It is a powerful message that I think are society desperately needs, especially given the goal-oriented priorities that our late-stage capitalist societies presses upon us, a sentiment that is surprisingly understated but not completely eliminated from the film (leaving Soul a very progressive and anti-authoritarian piece of cinema).
I had a blast watching Soul and will absolutely recommend the film with my highest praises. I hope that we see more films like Soul in the coming years and continue to challenge the expected narrative structures and expectations of animated films. Disney and Pixar have always led the charge in transforming the art of animation and the furthering of Disney+ distribution of new releases alongside independent theatrical releases may have a truly transformative effect upon the film industry as a whole.
Next week, we continue the new releases by turning to a new documentary on Netflix. One I have been very excited to watch about a topic that is very near and dear to my heart: swearing.
FINAL SCORE - 9.5/10
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