Thoughtful themes paired with color, comedy for sensational ‘Soul’
I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s noticed that many Pixar movies — especially the later ones — don’t exactly seem like they were made for kids.
The treatment of mature marriage and widowhood in “Up”; the importance of sadness in “Inside Out”; rejection, loss and growth in “Toy Story 3” and “4” — you almost have to be an adult to grapple with these deeply moving lessons.
And Pixar’s sensational new “Soul” is its most grown-up movie yet. In fact, “Soul” is so gracefully written, so thoughtful, complex and subtle that — along with its intricate jazz-themed plot and soundtrack — it seems more like an art-house movie than a big-budget Disney feature.
Fortunately, “Soul” also has the color, comedy and catchy characters to keep kids’ attention while adults are fueling their mojo.
And I do mean “fueling.” Phew — what a vital message for troubled times!
Currently streaming on Disney Plus, the animated movie has Jamie Foxx voicing Joe Gardner, a pianist who gets a chance to fulfill his lifelong dream by gigging with pros at a Manhattan jazz club. But Joe is so excited that he absent-mindedly steps in a manhole and finds himself on a celestial pathway heading toward “the Great Beyond” (i.e., the life hereafter).
Refusing to meet such a sudden end, Joe flees the queue and somehow winds up in “the Great Before,” where fledgling souls prepare for life on earth. Tapped to train these budding humans, he’s tasked with Soul #22 (Tina Fey), who is so resistant to entering life that she’s foiled such mentors as Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln, Carl Jung and Muhammad Ali.
See what I mean by complex and grown-up? And this is only the first 20 minutes!
Eventually, Joe and 22 do wind up on earth, but I’m not revealing the plot twist here, except to say it allows for a talking cat that will surely help pull kids into the pell-mell plot.
22’s problem is that she can’t find her “spark” — the thing that makes one want to live; and Joe will unwittingly help her with this, even as he has own life-lessons to learn.
Thematically, “Soul’s” profoundest message is that folks caught up in a personal passion can enter “the zone,” where they move briefly into another realm of existence; yet if we pursue this passion too obsessively, we become disconnected from the world and lose touch with the magic of life. Ironically, this is what Joe’s jazz dreams have done to him; meanwhile, 22 becomes convinced she’s worthless, without purpose — and this threatens to destroy her soul as well.
Yet all this is only a spin-off of the principal lesson that “spark” and “reason for living” are not the same thing at all.
Even as all these ideas develop, “Soul” is bursting with luscious visuals in a variety of styles: line-drawings, pointillism, Picasso, black and white, 2-D and a sort of pastel effect. Also gorgeous is its ambient score by Atticus Ross and Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor — plus jumpy, juicy jazz written and played by pianist Jon Batiste.
Great vocal work, too — especially Questlove as Curley the drummer, Angela Bassett as a soulful sax-player and Rachel House as the narcissistic Terry.
In an era rife with franchises, sequels and remakes, the invigorating “Soul” is not like any other movie I can think of. I actually had to watch it twice before I felt ready for this review.
And that’s a good thing.