Thursday, December 24

Soul Review


Dir: Pete Doctor and Kemp Powers

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Phylicia Rashad, Angela Bassett, Richard Ayoade, Alice Braga, Donnell Rawlings, and Questlove

Runtime: 1h 40m

Walt Disney Pictures


The trumpet blast at the beginning of Miles Davis’ 1952 release “Enigma” caught the attention of a young, budding music fan in a record store sometime in the early 2000s. While this particular song may not define the stunning career of the legendary artist, it would define a moment for a young man trying to make sense of the world he was living in; a world filled with lofty questions like “what am I going to do with my life”, “when will I find love”, and “what happens if my plan doesn’t work out”. 


It was a moment, you might call it a “spark”, that changed my feelings about jazz music, but even more, changed my ideas of what music can make you feel, how it can grab an emotion and define it completely through the simple selection of a variety of notes. When I hear the song I remember everything about that moment, how the store smelled, how the floor stuck to my shoes, and how the glow of the lights illuminated the shelves of music, but more strikingly I remember how the song brought a sense of comfort to my soul. Music, at this moment, wielded such power and emotion that I would name my first-born child after the auteur who composed this piece. 

In the beginning minutes of Disney Pixar’s newest animated emotional vessel, “Soul”, a middle-aged elementary school band teacher in New York City named Joe (Jamie Foxx) shows a classroom full of brand-new musicians how music can transport and transform by playing an improvised piece on the piano. It’s but one beautiful moment in a film filled with beautiful moments. “Soul” is a film about questions, both simple and complicated, that occur throughout the many twists and turns during the story of a person’s life. It’s a film you will contemplate well after the stunning animation ends, one that you may feel after the delightfully arranged composition plays its final note, it’s a film that again proves Pixar’s power of storytelling for all ages. 


The film centers on band teacher Joe, Pixar’s first Black lead character, a somewhat disenfranchised musician who longs for stardom in jazz clubs while continuously contemplating why he can’t catch a break. Joe’s mother Libba (Phylicia Rashad) only wants what’s best for her son, pushing him towards a full-time job with the school, but Joe dreams for a different life. The opportunity comes unexpectedly as a former student calls on Joe to fill an open position on piano for jazz artist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) in her band. Joe is ecstatic, but during the exuberance, he falls into an open manhole. His body is transported to an escalator leading to the Great Beyond, but Joe isn’t ready to leave his life and scrambles to escape which leads him to the Great Before, a place where unborn souls are given their personality traits before entering the world. 


“Soul” is a bold and inventive step in storytelling for a company that has already led the charge in bold and inventive steps in storytelling. From the beautiful life story of “Up”, to the dystopian cautionary tale of “Wall-E”, all the way to the emotional identification tale of youth in “Inside Out”, Disney Pixar animated stories have pushed the boundaries of how you can tell tales of deeper conversation for young people. 

Pixar’s most recent stories have progressed to have grown-up conversations about death and dying told through the vessel of characters that have connections for all ages to understand and connect with. “Coco”, which centers on a young boy’s journey through culture and the land of the dead, and “Onward”, which concerns two brothers on a voyage to connect with their deceased father, tackle the tough reality of losing loved ones and dealing with a life changed by their absence. These films lean into an understanding that life is more than just a beginning and end, that even through immense tragedy one can still find the pieces of love, kindness, sacrifice, and responsibility that define a life lived between the start and finish. 


Amidst its beautifully rendered New York City, with images that paint a photorealistic world that looks and feels like a fairy-tale land, that makes one remember the magic of big cities, and in the abstract world of the Great Before and Beyond that showcases floating gumball-like characters finding their “spark” before entering the world, “Soul” takes its animation to portray a tale greater than just death but instead about the questions that piece together a life. More than “Coco” and “Onward”, “Soul” searches the complicated questions not for meaning or answers, but rather for insight and understanding, for a way to propose the difficult topics while using characters and stories to travel the complicated pathways. 


Joe’s journey from his earthly body into a floating blue figure working every angle to find a passage back to his life, accompanied by an unborn soul simply known as 22 (Tina Fey), renders familiar questions every person experiences on their movements through life. Joe becomes a Mentor in the Great Before, a recently deceased figure charged with helping an unborn soul find their “spark”, that unique quality that helps the soul find their appreciation for life. Joe later finds the opportunity to experience his life from another perspective (a twist that will not be spoiled here), he watches how his character interacts with people in the world he has left, how he’s ignored some great things that have always been around him, how he hasn’t taken the time to smell the roses in his life. It’s a simple sentiment, one found throughout all tales of life, love, and loss that sums up how one should approach their life. However simplistic it may sound, “Soul” somehow makes it feel and mean so much more than it is. That’s the beauty of this tale.


As young people will grow to understand, as middle-aged people are beginning to recognize, and as elder people are becoming accustomed to accept, life doesn’t have defined destinations, but it does have everything in between. A beautiful walk in a big city, the hardship of lost love, the feeling of joy when getting an unexpected hug, the struggle of being isolated from people you love, and the sound of beautiful music in a record store that changes how you think and feel about something. “Soul” is bold and ambitious and beautiful storytelling. 


Monte’s Rating

4.00 out of 5.00

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