A music teacher with a dream of being a jazz musician falls into a coma on the day of his big break and his soul struggles to get back to his body.
Directed by Pete Docter
Starring Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey
Review by Jon Kissel
As we follow Joe, we understand that though he’s good at teaching, his real goal is to be a musician. Of indeterminate age but probably somewhere in his 30’s, Joe’s spent a lot of years frustrating his seamstress mother with dreams that have failed to produce anything. It’s thanks to his teaching that he gets a potentially lucrative tip from a former student, playing piano for local star Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Docter again wows with the first shots of Dorothea playing sax to an empty room, and Joe once again loses himself in his piano-playing. The film is heavily front-loaded with all these ecstatic sequences, putting the viewer in the same place as Joe when he is given a spot in the band for tonight’s show. That ecstasy blinds Joe to where he’s going as he walks through the city, however, and he falls in a manhole to his presumed death.
Much of the rest of the film plays out as a tour of the afterlife, envisioned at first as something out of Don Hertzfeld. The average soul is assimilated into a blinding white light, but a panicked Joe falls off the escalator and heads to a dimension where new souls train before they head to earth. There’s a lot of quick exposition and explanation here as Docter and co-writers Mike Jones and Kemp Powers breeze through their vision of this pre-world. They haven’t put a lot of thought into it. The film imagines personality traits as a building that blank-slate souls are pushed through by guardians who make random choices with no rhyme or reason. The souls come out with boxes on their chests, living enneagrams or whatever other fancy HR word for easily sortable humans is popular at the seminars these days. The skepticism is creeping back in. The final, individualized part of a soul is the spark, where the mentors come in. Joe, misidentified as a famous child psychologist and made a mentor, is assigned to work with 22 (Tina Fey), a willful soul who sees no value in heading to earth, not when she’s got a mildly annoying but comfortable life in this plane of existence.
The film doesn’t reveal its own purpose for existence until a series of mishaps lands Joe and 22 on earth, but 22 lands in Joe’s formerly comatose body and Joe’s soul lands in a therapy cat. In these sequences, Soul is more Ratatouille than Inside Out, which is fine because Ratatouille is my favorite Pixar movie. Joe the cat steering 22 the man through New York is a lot of fun, but the exposition doesn’t stop. It does improve, however, as now Joe is explaining how his world works to 22. For 22, earth was an abstract place, but now that it has sensory inputs, it’s a stinky, delicious, heart-pounding, invigorating fantasia. Like so many artists who operate on a large public scale, Docter had his own moment of achieving career peaks long before his career is over and wondering, ‘now what.’ I’d imagine animators bent over their computers spend a period of time as Soul’s lost souls, gibbering obsessives surrendering to routine and narrow focus. As 22 takes irrepressible delight in something as simple as sunlight and Joe is solely concerned with making it to the night’s gig, the film becomes autobiographical for Docter, even moreso when Joe ends up playing well at the gig and is greeted after with nothing more than the recognition that this source of joy will also, after many repetitions, one day turn into drudgery. When the goal has been achieved, when the spark has been ignited, what happens next?
There’s a lot of Soul that speaks directly to me, and specifically at the low-stakes dilemma that haunts a lot of my life. Few people are going to read this, and less are going to listen to the eventual podcast segment we record about it. I’m typing it before I go to bed and wake up to do a job where I take some amount of pride in what I do, but I’m replaceable and I often wonder what the number is in upper management’s collective heads, after which point it makes more sense to hire a cheaper fresh graduate as opposed to an experienced but more expensive analyst. Like Joe, my curated life sequence would include eating alone at restaurants and watching TV from an unflattering angle. But what if I’m satisfied with all that stuff? What if I sometimes eat a fantastic meal with no one to share it with, or what if I’m consuming something as wonderful as Ted Lasso on TV? What if I’m experiencing more comfort and pleasure than 99% of all of humanity in recorded history, and I can still find joy where I can within those privileged confines? Soul has a weird and condescending attitude towards Eastern religions in a way that it could never have with Western ones, but a tenet of Buddhism that it signs onto is a freedom from want, which here includes a freedom from ambition. Goddamn, do I want to hear that in more movies.
Soul has its various irritants, like the aforementioned orientalism and the ill-considered personality boxes and Joe’s quick turn to what is essentially suicide at the end and the eyebrow-raising choice to ultimately drop 22 in what looked a lot like Xinjiang China, but I can’t be this deeply moved by a film and not highly rate it. From the beginning, Docter has the transcendent cinematic moment down to a science, a literal series of ones and zeroes that produce an intense emotional reaction in the viewer. He returns over and over again to that formula and each time is just as powerful. Combined with a career-best performance from an almost unrecognizable Foxx and Pixar’s continued technical excellence, Soul does bowl my critical faculties over, not by constructing a credible afterlife but by showing how unnecessary such a thing is. Contrary to a middling Bond film’s title, the world is indeed enough, especially with meaningful morsels like this. A-