Casual Rambling
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Casual Rambling

Movie Review: Soul

Rating: 4 Stars

from Attractions Magazine

Two major Christmas features were released straight to streaming and I indulged in both. Each film had its own take on human wants and desires, and how selfishness and greed cause great internal and external peril.

The first was Disney Pixar’s Soul. Just when you think Pixar is done surprising its audience with clever moral and emotional innuendo, the story writers and thinkers at Pixar do it again.

Pete Docter is an OG of the Disney Pixar franchise with story credits on Toy Story, Monsters Inc. which was his directorial debut, and continuing with Up and Inside Out. Docter is most concerned with what makes humans… human. While his last film Inside Out literally explored human emotions, Soul more tepidly explores the human soul.

But Docter needed some help to give Soul the language of music and to center a film around a black man in the heart of New York City. Add on Pixar creative team member Mike Jones and a relatively unknown writer in Kemp Powers (writer on One Night in Miami and Star Trek: Discovery), and off we go!

Soul opens with a middle school music teacher who clings to the dream of one day becoming a famous jazz musician like the ones his dad introduced him to growing up. Joe, voiced by Jamie Foxx, has been desperately waiting for his one chance to show the world his talent for playing the piano.

In the beginning, it appears Soul is going to be a movie where Joe’s true mission is to be a mentor for his ear-shattering band class that has one special student who also seems destined to play music. But Joe gets a call from an old student who has a gig that might land Joe the opportunity he’s always dreamed of.

Joe gets the gig but at his celebration takes him to the brink of death after he falls down a manhole. Whoops.

Quickly the movie transports us to the world of blue orbs that represent a person’s soul. Joe is determined not to die and ends up in a world where new souls are created. It is here he meets the soul known as 22, a troublesome soul who refuses to find a purpose to travel to Earth.

22 finds Joe intriguing because Joe’s life is an abject failure, which Joe had not come to terms with yet. Joe may be a cynic but he is determined. Joe discovers a mystical way to return to his body from his deathbed but here’s where the greatest wrinkle in the movie is enacted. 22 falls into Joe’s body while Joe falls into the therapy cat that lies at his bed.

It is Joe’s self-discovery that strikes a chord, pun intended. Joe became so hyper-focused on his passion for music, he let it consume him. Joe never realized he had the ability to inspire others as he only cared about himself.
The impetus of jazz music as a setting for this story adds the needed flavor to move older audiences. The freaky Friday dilemma of Joe as a cat and 22 as Joe adds hilarity for the children. It also subtly adds an Ebeneezer Scrooge aspect of Joe vicariously experiencing the error of his ways.

The most impactful scene in the film occurs when Joe has a pivotal argument with his mother. It’s an argument that’s probably happened for a lot of families.

What’s most impressive about Soul is how morbid of a film it should be yet it has an incredibly lighthearted tone at the surface. Below the surface Soul makes you think about humans and their passions. At what cost can someone pursue their passion before they are consumed by it? On the flip side, what about those who seem to have no purpose or direction?

The takeaway is that there is more to people than what we see at the surface. While such a simple endearing message, Soul has many layers to it that makes it easily worth a second watch.

Soul is the best-written film I’ve seen in a while. It’s a tight and rich hour and 40 minutes that doesn’t waste scenes, lines, or characters. For a film so based on the human condition, there are very few human characters. Each person we meet has a distinct role in educating Joe about himself.

There’s the wise old singer voiced by Angela Bassett who is a sturdy veteran in the supporting role scene. Her role in Soul, while brief, holds sage impact.
We meet Joe’s barber Dez, voiced by Donnell Rawlings, who you may remember from Chappelle Show skits.

Questlove voices a former student of Joe’s. Tina Fey voices 22 in a childlike fashion similar to Sarah Silverman’s effort in Wreck-It Ralph.

Foxx and Fey carry most of the vocal load but as per usual the cinematic artistry and imagination are on display from Pixar’s animation team.
It is worth mentioning this is Pixar’s second foray into a world beyond white characters and culture after the critically successful and moving Coco in 2017.

I’m certain older white audiences will continuously be dubious of why representation is such an important cultural force coming from a powerhouse studio like Pixar. While Pixar may not affect the parents whose prejudices may have already been formed, the next generation of children will have seen movies like Soul and Coco helping form an acceptance for seeing people who are of a different race or culture than themselves portrayed in cinema.

What I like about these two recent examples is that race isn’t used as a point of contention but rather as cultural enrichment. Music is at the center of that enrichment and that’s what makes Soul the extra mile of special.

The piano arrangements are magical. Just as Joe is transported to “The Zone” when he gets in his piano groove, so was I. It curiously reminded me of the drumming scenes from Whiplash, though Miles Teller to his credit wasn’t animated.

Soul could be a byproduct of right place, right moment as the year 2020 has been what it has been. But if I had to hedge my bets on how Soul ages, Soul has a timeless theme that will be relevant for generations to come. Is it particularly profound? No. Is it an expertly told and entertaining tale? Yes.

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J. King

J. King

Not your average Medium rambler