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‘Soul’ has heart

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Hey there! Would you like to watch a beautifully animated film rife with cute characters and silly gags that also causes you to contemplate the deeper meaning of life? Are you interested in a cartoon that may trigger something of an existential crisis? Do you want to laugh and cry in equal measure?

If your answer to these questions is yes, well … you probably already watch Pixar movies.

The studio’s latest offering is “Soul,” another masterful piece of work that is currently streaming on Disney+. Directed by Pete Doctor – the animation auteur who previously helmed Pixar heartbreakers “Inside Out” and “Up” – with co-direction from Kemp Powers, it’s a film that takes a look at what makes us us, an emotional and cleverly rendered look at where we go after we die and where we are before we are born.

It’s smart, of course, and absolutely stunning to look at. This being Pixar, it also takes the opportunity to emotionally eviscerate us, showing us the power of self and of sacrifice while offering up some thoughts on just what it’s all about. Another triumph from a studio that simply doesn’t miss.

Joe (Jamie Foxx, “Project Power”) is a middle school music teacher. He’s good at it – he’s even gotten the nod to assume the position full-time – but he’s still clinging to his dreams of becoming a great jazz musician. His mother Libba (Phylicia Rashad, “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey”) wants him to give up the chase, but Joe can’t bring himself to do it. And when his former student Curley (Questlove) gets him a shot at sitting in with jazz legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett, TV’s “9-1-1”), it looks like he might finally make it.

And then, in the sort of comic tragedy that only works in cartoons, Joe winds up as a disembodied spirit on a conveyer belt moving toward a bright white glow – the Great Beyond. He panics and refuses to go quietly, inadvertently finding his way to a different section of the afterlife: The Great Before.

The Great Before is where souls await the opportunity to be born on Earth, where they gain the attributes that will define their personalities. The Great Before is run by an omnipotent quantum force that exists outside time and space, embodied by a number of delightfully Cubist line-drawing beings – kinetic Picasso sketches – all of whom are named Jerry. Joe, attempting to dodge his fate, poses as a mentor – one of the elder souls assigned to help younger souls prepare for life on Earth.

Joe is assigned 22 (Tina Fey, “Wine Country”), a particularly obstinate soul who is determined not to go to Earth. Joe confesses his deception and conspires with 22 to use her attribute badge to make his way back to his body. As you might imagine, it proves a little more complicated than that; Joe does make it back to Earth, but 22 turns up as well … and neither of them is where they want to be. It’s a twist that I won’t spoil here, though if you’ve seen the trailers, you probably already know it.

Suffice it to say that Joe and 22 are forced to work together to help Joe realize his lifelong dream, and along the way, 22 starts to realize some things about her own biases and beliefs. Both Joe and 22 must determine what it is they truly want – their true purpose – and whether they can do what it takes to get where they’re meant to go.

“Soul” is a beautiful and touching look at the power of identity and our ability to define ourselves. It’s also a whimsical, yet surprisingly sharp exploration of the very idea of the soul. Pixar always seeks to strike that balance between energetic entertainment and emotional engagement; walking that line is what makes their films so universally exceptional (the odd “Cars” franchise notwithstanding).

Aesthetically, it is simply stunning. From the meticulous recreation of New York City to the yawning void of the Great Beyond, everything is magical to look at. We get the blobby shapelessness of the souls and the Picasso-esque two-dimensionality of the Jerrys set against the standard humanistic warmth of regular people. There’s a black desert sailed upon by a psychedelic ship (with a classic Dylan cut on repeat to boot) and perhaps the most accurate visual rendition of the feeling of being creatively in “the zone” that I’ve ever seen on screen.

Unsurprisingly, music plays a key role in “Soul.” Two very different musical figures worked on the diverging aspects of the film. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross composed the score for the more metaphysical scenes, while jazz legend Jon Batiste wrote some original jazz tunes for the scenes in New York. Sonically, everything clicks.

As for the casting, well … Pixar has assembled the usual outstanding group. Foxx is a fantastic choice as Joe, evoking creative fire and relentless ambition. Fey is a hoot as the goofball 22, striking just the right tone of bratty naivete. Rashad is great as always. Questlove and Bassett handle their handful of scenes nicely. And the Jerrys – man. Richard Ayoade, Alice Braga, Wes Studi, Fortune Feimster and Zenobia Shroff all shine as various counselors (though the best of the abstract beings is probably the counter known as Terry, voiced by Rachel House). Other highlights include Donell Rawlings, Daveed Diggs and a marvelous turn from Graham Norton (you’ll know it when you hear it).

“Soul” doesn’t QUITE reach the heights of the very greatest Pixar films – it occasionally gets weighed down a bit by the sheer mass of its ideas and ambitions – though it fits snugly into the tier just below. And even in that slot, it’s one of the year’s best films. It is smart and sharp and thought-provoking, all while offering plenty of lighthearted goofiness. It looks great, it sounds great … it IS great. “Soul” shines – and sings.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 30 December 2020 11:10

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