Review: ‘Soul’ (mystics without borders and all that jazz)

Inspired inspiration.

Joe Gardner (Jamie Fox) bides his time as a part-time music teacher at a public middle school while waiting for his big break playing in a jazz club, and he’s been biding for a very long time. On the same day he’s offered a full-time teaching position that would end his dream, a lucky break and a show of confidence becomes the opportunity of a lifetime… which abruptly ends. Finding himself a mere disembodied soul ascending to the Great Beyond, he resists before ending up in the Great Before, where old souls inspire new souls for a life on Earth. Mistaken for a mentor, Joe is assigned to 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who has never found the inspiration to leave the Great Before. Could she be the key to getting his life back and fulfilling his destiny?

The Pixar Formula is simple: introduce an interesting character, give you a reason to care, then have them make an unpopular choice, one that ends up becoming a life lesson; the rest are details. Pixar storytellers also have an understanding of spent lifetimes and the weight of experience, able to entertain serious topics in a connected and human way. The writer/director of Up — which made you cry in under ten minutes after thinking you’d hate the curmudgeon of a main character — Pete Docter (along with co-writer/director Kemp Powers) have created a situational story where there isn’t a villain or blame to assign other than introspection. Joe got what anyone gets — he got a lifetime; no more, no less — but can he become an inspiration when he himself departed unfulfilled?

Not everything Pixar does is a hit; a quick look on Rotten Tomatoes reveals Toy Story films are best rated and Cars films are among the least liked. There’s never an issue of quality or inspiration, however, and their storytellers are getting better at taking ideas that could easily be filmed in real life and finding a way to tell it better through animation. From the complexities of New York City to a not-so metaphoric wasteland of lost souls, every visual furthers the story, even when taken in unusual directions. Between moments of Looney Toons zaniness and somber moments of quiet reflection, Soul captures imaginations and inspires possibility for the young and old alike.

As the first Pixar story to really play in the metaphysics sandbox, there are hints of incredible ideas that could be far more fleshed out; this isn’t a failure but a feature. How before and after works, how being in the zone can cross thresholds, and the dangers of becoming consumed with self-doubt. Sprinkled with timely comedic bits and staged in grand presentation, there’s little bad that can be said about it — perhaps for want of an extended denouement the film earns but doesn’t require. There are too many amazing talents to list all the character voices here.

The trailers set up the film perfectly, telling viewers the least amount of info needed going in. As music is baked into the concept, jazz contributions were courtesy of Jon Batiste while Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross provided the score. It also can’t be an accident that the visuals for some of Joe’s jazz sequences appear inspired by Disney’s own Fantasia, but the transitions between story, music, and moods are orchestrated to perfection. Amazingly animated, perfectly voice-cast, and managing to surprise without losing focus, the more one thinks about Soul, the better it becomes.

Soul is rated PG for thematic elements, some language, and not to panic whenever the count’s off, Terry.

Four skull recommendation out of four

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