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Josh Reviews Soul

January 6th, 2021
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Pixar’s latest masterpiece is Soul, which was released to Disney+ late last month.  In the film, Jamie Foxx plays Joe Gardner, a middle-aged African American man who teaches music to kids in New York City.  Joe lives and breathes music, and dreams of becoming a successful jazz musician himself.  On the day Joe finally achieves his long sought-after big break, he accidentally falls down a manhole.  And dies.  And an entirely new journey begins.

I adored Soul.  As is often the case with Pixar films, Soul deals with some very heavy subjects.  (The film’s extended opening sequence reminded me somewhat of the opening of Up.  It’s not as much of an immediate tear-jerker, but it reminded me of that bravura sequence in the way that the film is very up-front about the challenging, adult issues it will be tackling.)  And yet the magic of Soul — as seems to always the case for Pixar — is that the film is never for a second dour or dreary.  It’s moving and emotional and adult… but it’s also joyful and funny and clever.  I love how skillfully the film strikes that balance!  And so Soul can be enjoyed by kids while also being enjoyed at an entirely different levels by adults.

I’d mentioned Up, but if Soul reminds me of anything, it’s Inside Out.  No surprise, Pete Docter directed both films.  Like Inside Out, Soul is compelling in the way it’s created a fascinating, delightful, fully fleshed-out universe exploring an aspect of our unknowable universe.  In Inside Out, the movie created an entire universe and mythology around the inner workings of a person’s thoughts and feelings.  Here in Soul, Mr. Docter and his team have done the same thing around our souls, and what happens after one dies (and before one is born).  I love the thought that has been put into every aspect of this universe.  This is a film that will reward multiple viewings.  The world created in Soul is distinct and original while also feeling insightful and universal.

Soul is notable for being the first Pixar film to focus on an African-American character.  It’s a delight.  Jamie Foxx is marvelous as Joe.  All of Mr. Foxx’s many talents are utilized in the role — his charisma, his comedic chops, his dramatic skills, and his musical abilities.  The film was co-directed and co-written by Kemp Powers, and he and his collaborators have done a terrific job fleshing out Joe and his African-American character friends and family members.  (Many of the promotional materials for this film on Disney+, including an episode of the Inside Pixar series, explore Mr. Kemp’s contributions to the film.  They’re worth a look if you’re interested in learning more.)

The structure of Soul is interesting in that it actually takes quite a while for the films main story to get underway.  We go through a lengthy sequence of Joe’s last day on Earth and then his introduction to the afterlife, before Joe connects with the ornery, stubborn soul “22” who has not yet found her “spark” needed to start her human life on Earth.  But that’s not a complaint.  This structure shouldn’t work on paper, but I enjoyed every minute of the film’s early going.  It doesn’t feel like wheel-spinning before we get to the main story.  It’s a fascinating, fun and emotional journey all it’s own, and I loved all the film’s twists and turns.  Once Joe and “22” finally connect and stumble into the crazy circumstances that send them on their adventure together, the film really takes off… and it becomes far funnier than I ever thought a film about death and the afterlife could possibly be!  This was the film’s greatest surprise for me.

Amy Poehler was spectacular in Inside Out, and so there is something cosmically perfect that it’s Tina Fey who voices 22 here.  Ms. Fey is perfect.  Just perfect.  Her dry wit and killer comedic instincts couldn’t be better suited for this role.  She and Mr. Foxx have great chemistry together.

Phylicia Rashad is tremendous in the small but important role of Joe’s mother.  Angela Bassett is terrific as jazz legend Dorothea Williams.  It’s fun to hear Daveed Diggs as Paul (who bickers with Joe in their barber shop), and Donnell Rawlings (The Wire) crushes it in his one critical scene as Dez, Joe’s barber.

(Important question: is Pixar “good luck charm” John Ratzenberger not in this film???  I didn’t recognize his voice anywhere.  Online I’ve read that Pete Docter insists he’s in the film somewhere…)

Once again, the mad geniuses at Pixar have crafted a beautiful, moving, funny, original film.  I can’t wait to see this again.

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