Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | December 23rd, 2020
Soul (Pete Docter/Kemp Powers, 2020) 3 out of 4 stars.
Despite their colorful aesthetics and fantastical stories, the films of Pixar Animation Studios have never been made solely for kids. As with the best of family entertainment, their output has managed to simultaneously entertain young viewers and transport older ones backwards in time to their own childhoods. Perhaps the best visualization of their frequent dramatic heft can be seen in the scene from the 2007 Ratatouille where food critic Anton Ego takes a bite out of the titular dish and instantly journeys to a cherished buried memory. The art of Pixar is an elegy for vanished youth, wrapped up in the trappings of confection, appealing to multiple generations at once.
It comes as something of a surprise, then, to encounter their latest movie, Soul, given its uncharacteristic focus on middle age. Then again, given that it is co-written and co-directed by Pete Docter, one of the forces behind the 2009 Up (as well as the 2015 Inside Out), the mature themes make more sense. That earlier work’s opening sequence may just be the most devastating cinematic encapsulation of life’s joys and sorrows ever put on screen, even if the subsequent main part was more child-centered. In his latest, co-directed and co-written by Kemp Powers (author of the upcoming One Night in Miami), Docter follows the life, death and afterlife of protagonist Joe as he struggles with his abiding sense of failure. As a meditation on lost opportunities and the resentments they engender, the film proves quite “soul”-crushing.
Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx, Project Power) is a fiftyish (or so) wannabe jazz pianist whose days are mostly spent teaching middle-school music classes. When he is finally offered a full-time position, his long-suffering mother rejoices, feeling like she will no longer need to worry about her baby’s security. Unfortunately, just as he is prepared to accept his unwanted fate, Joe suddenly gets offered the chance to play with one of his idols, singer Dorothea Williamson (Angela Bassett, Otherhood). If all goes well, and after a rough start, it does, then he could finally be able to do what he has always dreamed of doing. The future stretches bright, for once. Until, that is, he steps into a manhole.
The next brightness he sees is, sadly, is at the end of an escalator to heaven. Though heretofore relatively realistic in tone (for a Pixar film), Soul now changes gears for a fanciful tour of limbo as Joe rejects his demise and scampers away from the ascending staircase. Somehow, he sneaks into a special soul-in-training session where he is mistaken for a mentor and assigned to #22 (Tina Fey, Wine Country). She’s a soul that has never been sent to Earth, having failed all attempts to get her ready to inhabit a body. Enlisting her help, Joe finally makes it back down to the living, but through a mishap, 22 ends up in his body and he in that of a hospital’s therapy cat. And so now he must train her to be him, all the while trying to reverse this mistake.
The mix-up provides much of the legitimate comedy, which is good because the afterlife setup is twee and cloying, not only in conception but in visual design. Once we are back on Earth, the story rights itself again, balancing manic humor with increasing desperation. Never far from the plot’s thrust is the ticking clock of not only Joe’s ambition but his last hope to overcome lifelong inadequacy. To anyone of a certain age who has ever wrestled with similar fears and disappointments, Soul is sure to resonate, even if parts of it don’t work as well as others.
Indeed, Soul even manages to rescue itself from a pedestrian resolution with an unexpected twist at the end (though certain angelic motivations feel forced), allowing room for the crazy notion that teaching may not be such a waste, after all. It’s not about traditional markers of success, but something deeper. The film reminds us that life is worth living for its own sake, and that every life is precious. That’s not just a good lesson for 2020, but for all time.