A musician who has lost his passion for music is transported out of his body and must find his way back with the help of an infant soul learning about herself.
Disney Pixar has done it again with “Soul” thanks to the inspirational co-writing and co-directing of the renowned artist Pete Docter who gave us “Up,” “Inside Out,” and “Toy Story.” With animation that makes you forget it’s animated, Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Angela Bassett and an array of other well-known and talented actors use their voice to bring these characters to life. It’s a remarkable story, perhaps geared more toward adults than children, that sends a perfect message of living our best lives each and every day.
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Joe Gardner has always had modest ambitions. Passionate about music, his primary goal has been to play in a band, not so much for fame and fortune, but just to do what he loves. As long as he could make enough to survive, he’d be happy. But like so many of us, he’s made compromises and concessions, at times justified pushing his dreams to the side for more practical reasons, always intending to focus on it again when the time was right. However, time has passed, opportunities have become rare and before you know it, his passion has faded and threatens to become something that gnaws and festers. Joe has settled in as a music teacher at a public school, however an opportunity pops up from out of the blue to play at a renowned New York City club with a respected quartet. Too bad Joe dies before he can give his dream one final shot.
That’s the set-up for Pete Docter and Kemp Powers’ “Soul,” a beautiful meditation on life and all that makes it worth living. It’s a simple enough theme, yet what with the scattered lives we lead and the vagaries of 2020 weighing on most of our shoulders, the special kind of inspiration Pixar Films supplies when firing on all cylinders is very much in need. And while this simple tale threatens to jump the tracks with a silly subplot, it soon rights itself and proves to be one of the studio’s best and most moving productions.
After a former student calls Joe (voice by Jamie Foxx) telling him he’s set up an audition for him with the great jazz artist Dorethea Williams (Angela Bassett) he’s over the moon, even more so when he lands the job to play piano in her quartet. Unfortunately, his zeal to rush home to tell his mother causes him to make a misstep into an open manhole cover and before you know it, he’s riding a massive escalator to heaven. Sensing it’s not his time, Joe hightails it out of there and finds himself in The Great Before, a serene locale populated by new souls, who are not fully formed. Desperate to return to Earth, a bargain is struck and our hero is assigned Soul 22 (Tina Fey), a belligerent sprite who has yet to find her spark, the thing that will develop into her passion in life. It’s Joe’s job to help her find it. He has his work cut out for him.
The wealth of imagination in the script by Mike Jones, Doctor and Powers is overwhelming, one clever concept tripping on the heels of the next, uproarious jokes flying left and right, genuine sentiment underpinning it all. Much like Docter’s “Inside/Out,” the film does a masterful job of personifying emotions and behaviors in striking visual and behavioral terms, the most memorable being the Lost Souls who are doomed to wander in limbo. Hulking black, shapeless figures, they aimlessly drudge through a grim landscape, their single eye searching for purpose which is constantly elusive.
It’s a haunting image that serves as a stark counterpoint for the sights that put everything in perspective for Joe. Rivaling the heartbreaking opening of Docter’s “Up,” he witnesses a series of seemingly mundane events from his life as well as a litany of everyday treasures, all of which he’s taken for granted. In realizing the beauty in all these things, Joe rediscovers his spark. Our world and so much of what it contains makes life worth living. It’s a simple notion, but “Soul” drives home this message with subtle grace, making it one of the most moving films of the year.
3 1/2 Stars