Soul (2020) • View trailer

Five stars. Rated PG, for mild thematic elements

By Derrick Bang • Published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.1.21

This isn’t the first time I’ve observed that some of the sharpest, wittiest and most perceptive scripts belong to animated films.


An impressive percentage of them come from Pixar.


Joe Gardner’s soul, right, tirelessly tries to find something that might inspire the cynical,
world-weary — and yet oddly childlike — Soul 22.

Pete Docter has been one of Hollywood’s most innovative writer/directors for well over a decade; he’s also one of the most savvy collaborators. Although he shared scripting credits on WALL•EUp and Inside Out, all three possess an inventive point of view — a shrewd analysis of the human condition — that bespeaks Docter’s guiding influence.


This is even more obvious, given that he directed — and won well-deserved Academy Awards — for the latter two.


I figured Inside Out would remain his career masterpiece. I should’ve known better.


Soul — directed and co-written by Docter, with scripting assistance from Mike Jones and Kemp Powers — is another animated tour de force that ingeniously blends humor, pathos and social commentary with a wildly imaginative take on what makes us who we are.


Whereas Inside Out cheekily proposed how our workaday behavior varies according to the influence of (primarily) joy, sadness, fear and anger, Soul — available (ahem) solely via Disney+ — offers a fascinating theory for how are personalities are shaped, and the unalterable degree to which that influences who and what we become.


But the film doesn’t initially seem that way, and that’s another clever touch: An equally strong secondary story beats at its heart.


Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a gifted pianist with wicked jazz chops, has tirelessly gigged in an effort to get the one big break that might ignite a career. He’s a constant disappointment to his mother (Libba Gardner), who wishes he’d abandon such dreams and be content as a middle-school music teacher … particularly since he’s just been offered full-time employment.


Ah, but Joe lucks into an audition for world-renowned sax legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) … and nails it. She makes him a member of her quartet, currently headlining at the Half Note (the absolute epitome, as visualized, of an intimate New York basement jazz club).


Giddy with delight, oblivious to his surroundings, Joe has an accident … and winds up — now a much smaller, ghostlike presence that represents his soul — on a moving sidewalk leading heavenward into The Great Beyond.


(This whiplash assault on our emotions and expectations — giddy with joy, sharing Joe’s success, to sudden whattheheck??? — is typical of Docter’s films.)


Not wanting any part of this, thankyouverymuch, Joe shoves past all the other recently deceased souls and dives off the sidewalk. And winds up in The Great Before. 


Recently re-titled The You Seminar, due to re-branding.


Thanks to helpful guides, all of whom seem to be named Jerry — think extraordinarily patient and cheerful camp counselors — Joe learns that this is where new, tadpole-like human souls are assigned their personalities. Much of this is random: One little soul is an “agreeable skeptic who’s cautious yet flamboyant,” while the next is an “irritable wallflower who’s dangerously curious.”


And this one: a “manipulative megalomaniac who’s intensely opportunistic.” 


(Which, yes, is a real-world eyebrow-lift.)


But not quite everything is random. Each newbie also is assigned a mentor soul: extraordinary people throughout history, who’ve been allowed to help the fledgling souls find the “special spark” that allows them to journey to Earth.


Joe watches as soul No. 108,210,121,145 is assigned to her mentor soul: a former rare disease specialist from the University of Mexico. Figuring this gig might be a way to return to Earth, and his body, Joe winds up with disenchanted soul No. 22 (Tina Fey) … who has long (very long!) resisted all efforts to send her to Earth. She simply isn’t interested.


Nor, during what we realize must have been millennia, has she ever come anywhere near finding her spark.


As if this impossible assignment weren’t enough of a problem, Joe isn’t really supposed to be in The You Seminar. Terry (Rachel House), an obsessed accountant charged with tracking souls entering The Great Beyond, realizes — thanks to calculations on her cosmic abacus — that “the count is off.” And she’s determined to make it right.


You’d think this would be more than enough on which to hang an engaging story — replete with humor, frustration, wisdom and the rising tension of an exterior threat — and that might be true, in lesser hands. But just as we’ve settled into this new dynamic — much the way we settled into Joe’s life, back on Earth — Docter and his co-writers hit us with another curve, which sets up the bulk of their film.


And I’ll not say a word about that unexpected shift.


The Joe/22 dynamic is delightful, frequently hilarious and quite poignant at times. Pixar’s skill with voice talent always is superb, and Foxx and Fey are no exception. As amusing as it is, when 22 — much like a petulant teenager — deflects every one of Joe’s efforts to inspire her, we understand that his heart isn’t entirely in the effort. He has long known his spark, and mourns the lost opportunity to enjoy it.


Then, too, a wistful note occasionally creeps into Fey’s delivery, as if 22 realizes that she’s somehow incomplete, and laments never having figured out what to do about that.


The two key settings couldn’t be different. Production designer Steve Pilcher oversees a bustling, colorful New York that feels every inch like a vibrant metropolis. At the other extreme, The Great Before is an ethereal realm of soft pastel forms in unexpected shapes and sizes: soft translucent edges that blend into each other, often with a degree of blur.


The character art is similarly fascinating. Although the real-world bodies and heads are cartoonishly exaggerated — as with Joe — details such as hands, and fingers at work on a piano keyboard, look rigorously authentic.


The five primary Jerry counselors — voiced by Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Wes Studi, Fortune Fiemster and Zenobia Shroff — are a striking contrast: ever-changing figures defined by two-dimensional lines that nonetheless look completely different when viewed from another angle.


Terry is another matter. Where the Jerrys tend to be comforting, rounded shapes, Terry is harsh and threatening angles, as befits the “villain” of this saga. House is a hoot: condescending and determined, and oblivious to the fact that the Jerrys tend to find her … well … bothersome.


The film’s emotional highs and lows are perfectly complemented by the often deeply moving Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross score, which drifts between the real and soul worlds. Celebrated jazz pianist Jon Batiste handles the story’s jazz elements, and ghosts Joe’s keyboard work.


At its core, this is a brilliant parable on the concepts of creation, and artistic drive, and of what constitutes a genuinely meaningful life. That’s a heavy lift for any single story; the fact that Soul does this with such wit, humor, passion — and snarky observations on the human condition — is nothing short of genius.


(On a trivial note, this also is a far better “jazz film” than the recently released Sylvie’s Love.)

I suspect Docter soon will have another Oscar on his mantle.

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