- Movie Rating -

Soul (2020)

| December 25, 2020

A little over halfway through Disney Pixar’s Soul, I asked my wife, “Does this movie feel like it was made for kids?”  Without a thought, she said, “Not at all.”  I didn’t ask this question out of derision, only out of the curious fact that this is a movie about the existential meaning of one’s life, not the question of why we are here, but thematically questioning how we responsibly make the most of our time and our energy.  That’s a heavy narrative to pack onto a supposed kids movie and I think that’s the point.

In that way, the movie reminded me of Inside Out, which I ended up choosing as one of the two best films of the past decade (behind O.J. Made in America), another movie that speaks to adults by questioning the nature of humanity while providing enough color and slapstick to play to the kids.  That’s not to be condescending to kids, but only because the meaning-of-it-all narrative is less likely to stick with them then it will with grown-ups.

For my money, this is what makes Pixar special, their ability to make films aimed at kids but make them just as engrossing for adults.  That way, when the kids grow up and become nostalgic for these films, there is enough meat on the bone that you don’t feel like you’re a childless adult watching Nick, Jr.

Soul may provide the most distance between the child audience and the parental figures, but it surprisingly leans heavily on the latter.  Its hero, Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), is a run-down middle-school band teacher with big dreams of becoming a jazz musician who wants to quit his job despite the financial security that it promises.  That’s not exactly the kind of kid-centric hero that will land him on the shelf with Buzz Lightyear and Mike Wazowski.  Yet, like almost every Pixar hero, Joe is a born loser, a person who gets noogies from the cosmos on a good day and a steady diet of broken dreams on bad days. 

This day however, the universe plays its cruelest trick.  Just as he’s offered a chance to play his first gig in years, he falls down a manhole and is suddenly headed for The Great Beyond.  Rejecting his meeting with The Undiscovered Country, Joe turns back and is suddenly in a landscape of the Before-life, a magical world of blues and lavenders overseen by administrators who appear less like people than like abstract line drawings.  The point of this life prequel realm is for unborn souls to be given a personalities, quirks and interests before they are sent to Earth.  In other words, Joe was about to die and has managed to clumsy himself back to the beginning of the line.

This is where Joe meets Pixar’s pre-requisite cute sidekick, in this case, a smart-allecky white blob known as 22 (voiced by Tina Fey) who is has made herself an institutionally denounced misfit because she doesn’t want to go to Earth, in the process frustrating every mentor from Abraham Lincoln to Mother Teresa to Gandhi.  It isn’t long before Joe and 22 realize that they need each other.  He doesn’t want to cross into death and she doesn’t want to cross into life so they seek help from a group of shamans who wander this purgatory without borders led by an spiritual guide named Moonwind (voiced by Graham Norton).

That’s really just the first act.  The main story is where the kids are likely to jump onboard.  That story won’t be revealed here but it is yet another fish-out-of-water story in which two frustrated people must go on a journey to restore something that has gone horribly off the rails.  The great effect of this movie is that it really never takes a dive to run at the easy laugh or to sell you merchandise.  This is a very funny movie but also a deep and very thoughtful one.  Will kids get 22’s references to George Orwell or Carl Jung?  Certainly not.  The film digs deep into it message and gets heavy on its theme about making the most of the time we have while at the same time providing a very funny comedy at the same time.

That’s really what makes the best of Pixar, when they can set aside the corporate demands and just make a movie that has something to say.  This is an artful, deep and very funny movie that is also great to behold.  Like Inside Out t is creative and wild with burst of creative energy.  The land of the before life is one of the great creative places in the movies, not to be described but to be experienced.

This is Pixar back on track, the second film after the so-so Onward this is part of Pixar’s promise to lay off the sequels after Toy Story 4.  If this is the kind of film that they have in mind, I look forward to the future.  Soul is a work of imagination and deep thinking, of questions about the nature of humanity and a contemplation of how precious our brief time on this Earth really is.  I’m glad I took this journey.  I’m glad that Pixar is back on track.  This is one of the best films of the year.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2020) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized