Soul (2020)

A powerful, existentially-complex, dazzlingly-ambitious panegyric to musicianship and 9-5 vs. dreamers exposition with the loftiest philosophical thematization ever in animation: A Pixar in near-complete mastery of its craft like its jazz subject. 9.2/10.

Plot Synopsis: Joe is a middle-school band teacher whose life hasn’t quite gone the way he expected. His true passion is jazz — and he’s good. But when he travels to another realm to help someone find their passion, he soon discovers what it means to have soul.

*Possible Spoilers Ahead*

Official CLC Review

The Kings Of Animation

Few Studios & Collections In The World Have The Pedigree & Resumé Quality Of Pixar 1986-: Now To The Jazz Scene Of NYC

Photograph Courtesy Of: Pixar Animation Studios

Pixar has been capably building one of the most impressive cinematic resumés ever: Coco, Onward, Toy Story, Up, Finding Nemo, Cars, WALL-E, Monsters Inc., Brave, Inside Out, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, etc. The small California-based computer division of Lucasfilm that Steve Jobs visualized as the next big movie studio and became majority shareholder/financier upon individualization in 1986 before purchase by Disney at $7.4 Billion, the subsidiary has put out magnificent-quality family adventure films for decades. Technologically-powered by a now-standard Render Man program-interface but every bit as tender and human as live-action, Pixar has been king of animation for a long time – but was eluded by the top prize in the cinematic industry: Academy Award-recognition [beyond the category of Animated Feature there hasn’t been much quality-competition in.] Perhaps the 23rd-time’s-the-charm, as their newest project Soul and the COVID-19 pandemic might just coalesce into the Oscar-Cinderella Story campaign they’ve been chasing for generations. A powerful, existentially-complex, dazzlingly-ambitious panegyric to musicianship and 9-5 vs. dreamers exposition with the loftiest philosophical thematization ever in its genre juxtaposed by pure emotion & beautiful animation, Soul is a Pixar in ~complete mastery of its craft like jazz experimentalism.

The 9-5 Vs. Dreamers Exposition

From The Opening Introduction To Joe Gardner, A Film With Dark Humor & Cogent Analysis On Heavy Topics: Can’t Eat Dreams

Photograph Courtesy Of: Pixar Animation Studios

The film opens up into the hustle-and-bustle of NYC – and some [shockingly]-awful band-playing. Thankfully, it’s not our protagonist making that nightmare of off-tune/disharmonic sounds: Joe Gardner is the middle-school band teacher at a public inner-city program of kids who barely care about the notes on the page. The passion he has for music and the major/minor-juxtaposing artform of jazz shines through the dimlit and nausea-inducing halls of mediocrity surrounding him: as he glances longingly at the posters of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, & Billie Holliday on his wall, staring back down at him out of disappointment. This sets up one of the many critical and weighty intellectual themes weaved through Soul: 9-5 vs. dreamers exposition. Gardner takes the condescension-filled/menial job of band instructor to pay the bills and appease his ruthlessly-disapproving mother’s elitism, but can’t help but feel he’s wasting his life away from his dream and what makes the world spin for him: music. This is pure brilliance of analysis on the central theme of musicianship [applicable to the majority of artistic fields as well] in real-world sociological contexts: do you take that day-job that pays the bills but kills your spirit, energy, and time – or live your passion by chasing your dream and spending that life force on perfecting your craft, even if it’s a non-glamorized lifestyle?

A Panegyric To Musicianship

A Beautiful, Soaringly-Scored Love-Letter To The Artform Of Music Through The Black Cultural Improvisational Language Of Jazz

Photograph Courtesy Of: Pixar Animation Studios

Even if your craft is perfected, the entertainment industry is the most brutal on earth – and oftentimes those with the best talent/innovation sadly go unnoticed or unappreciated to the newest Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber pop-sensation with the right connections. Do you still suffer for your art – even if the odds are you’ll never make it big and be living a tough lifestyle? The accurate portrayal of the Darwinist brutality and daily nightmare of 95% of people in the entertainment business supplies a strong base thematically for Soul’s more beautiful harmonies overtop: its panegyric to the craft of musicianship. Disney’s mastermind composers and Pixar’s animation have brilliantly-captured the euphoria of music and how much artists put their very spirit into the craft [as I can personally-attest: piano and guitar-player from childhood-on who also DJed/produced music for commercial venues back in college at Emory and Harvard]. The technical description of notes, wowing stylization of its performances, nailed feeling of getting that first major gig, jazz-exposition on the cultural black language of improvisational music that doesn’t play by the rules of music and evolves/transcends its very artform, and the musical pieces themselves are some of the best ever put to screen on the topic – as the screenplay sets up Gardner’s life finally going right, only for tragedy to strike.

A Film About Everything

The Afterlife & Theoretical Construct Of TGB Are Pixar At Their Most Gifted & Dazzlingly-Ambitious; This Is So Much More Than Live/Anthropomorphized Toys & Cars

Photograph Courtesy Of: Pixar Animation Studios

A near-death experience brings Joe Gardner’s soul to the precipice of the afterlife – a staircase to The Great Beyond that likewise opens up the film into alternate dimensions and the loftiest philosophical ideas ever tackled in an animated film. Toto, we’re not just dealing with toys, anthropomorphized fish, or talking cars anymore.. this is another level of ambition I’m thoroughly-shocked a family film-brand had the hunger and perspicacity to artfully-engage. Through an exhibition of characterization juxtaposing the loserish warm joviality of Foxx’s hipster-glasses Joe wanting nothing but to live another day against Tina Fey’s spunky and irreverent/blithe 22, we’re taken on an iconoclastic and bonkers adventure through like nothing I’ve seen in this genre before. There’s body-swap entertainment that somehow avoids the clichés that many-a-genre-piece have fallen into, intellectually-advanced historical-comedy references magnanimously-poking fun at icons from Gandhi to Muhammad Ali to Freud to Marie Antoinette, veiled critique of normalcy and being trapped in daily-routines, NYC and spiritual realm-antics, and a prismatic landscape bursting of colors and clever sculpture of a theoretical construct of what the afterlife looks like. Curated exhibits reliving your life’s biggest moments like a museum, angelic ‘Jerry’s’ counseling children’s souls pre-life in The Great Before, and avant-garde ethereal design creating a world no living person has ever seen, this is Pixar testing the absolute limits of the animation pedigree they’ve built over the years – a mind-bending, neofuturist, surrealism-showcase for the ages.

A Powerful Tribute To Joie-De-Vivre

One Of The Most Poignant & Emotionally-Transcendent Experiences Since 1946’s IAWL; A Celebration Of Life & Mankind

Photograph Courtesy Of: Pixar Animation Studios

The screen pops with beautiful, kaleidoscopic, resplendent animation as easy on the eyes as it is on the heart and soul as it melts your inhibitions into a smooth roller-coaster of storytelling packed with hard-hitting, depth-filled, poignant, emotionally-powerful themes. The construction of Soul reminds us that life itself is a blessing and miracle we should cherish. Through its swap, 22 is able to feel the sensory experience of being a man – and physically-feel the wind blow, savor the act of eating, take a hot shower, and see the beauty of nature like seasons changing and seedlings falling from the trees. The simplicity of its pleasures and reductionist conclusion that we get bogged down in the idealism that there’s necesarily clear-cut purposes/missions for each and every one of us and that we need to find it instead of it finding us is brilliant. The greener-grass we always dreamed it might be might always be our true purpose [Joe’s musicianship after the big gig], and there’s beauty in the process of living, enjoying, and finding what our spark is. The character development of 22 from a nihilistic-being internalizing all the negatives she’s always been told into suicidal lost-ways to wanting to live/recognizing the beauty of life melds into altogether one of the happiest and most emotionally-powerful celebration-of-life films I’ve seen since 1946’s It’s A Wonderful Life, no doubt intentional by its carefully-chosen and thematically-resonant Christmas Day release. Beautiful.

Flaws

The Animation Style Is Podgy & Unfinished In Parts, An Extremely-Abrupt Transition To Afterlife, & Kitschy/Juvenile Cat-Swap Arc

Photograph Courtesy Of: Pixar Animation Studios

There are flaws in Soul, but in pains mine to weigh them seriously. The animation style is bizarrely-podgy/messy and unfinished-looking in parts, like the bald man’s head who first recruits Joe to his band’s gig and some of the souls in TGB. The souls themselves look a bit overly-childish – obviously to temper its big ideas for kids visually, but still: I wish they looked slightly more grown-up and larger. The transition from real-world NYC to the afterlife is extremely-abrupt and a ~plot-hole: there’s no way a fall 5-10 feet down a manhole-cover into the sewer would nearly-kill a man; if anything, it should’ve been one of the cars hitting him or something when he was walking through traffic. The saviorship of 22’s lost soul from the wanderers portion wherein Joe witnesses the hidden anxiety and damaged self-worth she internalized could’ve been a bit more sonically-powerful: utilizing voice distortion or something more climactic instead of Fey’s regular voice to pack the punch of the epic moment. Finally and the biggest of all: the cat-swap part is kitschy/juvenile and might just temper its awards-season hopes out [hopefully not since the rest of the film is so beautiful.. but still: not many BP-winners have a cat body-swap played for laughs as a core storytelling arc].

Conclusion

A Pixar In Jazz-Like Mastery Of Craft

A Powerful, Existentially-Complex, Dazzling, Ambitious Panegyric to Musicianship & 9-5 Vs. Dreamers Exposition Loaded w. Beautiful Animation, Emotion, & Philosophical Weight

Photograph Courtesy Of: Pixar Animation Studios

Overall, Soul is a chef d’oeuvre amongst – if not THE greatest Pixar movie. The film has the pedigree and existential weightiness to seriously contend for an Academy Award beyond just Best Animated Feature. A poignant, emotionally-powerful tribute to joie-de-vivre and the sensory experience of life of Earth, Soul packs heavy exposition on every possible feeling we go through in the adventure of life; it’s a film about everything. There’s a swanky psalm to musicianship and the black culturally-authentic improvisational artistry of jazz music, precocious 9-5 vs. dreamer thematization, and philosophical waxing on the very meaning of life and the biggest questions of mankind themselves – all through the lens of an NYC band-teacher and colorful, beautifully-animated children’s movie. The limitless possibilities of storytelling and humour opened up by its cross-dimensional/historical afterlife are capitalized on, pacing swift, length perfect, voice performances & characterization of one soul who can’t wait to live another day vs. one who doesn’t want to live before they criss-cross brilliant, and avant-garde construct of the afterlife mesmerizing and thoroughly mind-blowing. The cat-swap portion is kitschy/juvenile [though it’s used as a prismatic spectrum for life through the perspective/experience of a new soul learning the world], animation style texturally-unfinished in parts, and falling down a sewer hole not enough to likely ~kill a person, but these are nitpicks. A powerful, existentially-complex, dazzlingly-ambitious panegyric to musicianship and 9-5 vs. dreamers exposition with the loftiest philosophical thematization ever in its genre juxtaposed by pure emotion & beautiful animation, Soul is a Pixar in ~complete mastery of its craft like jazz experimentalism.

Official CLC Score: 9.2/10