***The Following Review Contains Spoilers***
What is the meaning of life? What is the purpose of oneself? Is living meant to be ordinary or extraordinary? Does any of that matter in the grand scheme of things? Or does all of it matter in the littlest scheme of things? Such questions and more are explored, pondered, and answered in the sweet, wholesome, and emotionally deep Soul (2020); one of Pixar animations most poignantly touching and thought-provoking films. This one hit plenty of notes with this humble schmoe given current events so keep that in mind as you venture forward peeps. If you haven’t experienced this triumphant work of art, I urge you to rectify that. Post haste.
Anyway, as the story goes, we’re introduced to Joe Gardner (voiced by multi-talented and always consistent Jamie Foxx). A determined, creative, and passionate music teacher who has an insurmountable love and obsession with jazz. Since he was little, Joe has dreamed of catching his big break and becoming a full fledge jazz musician whose apart of a famous band. He also dreams of playing like (and with) some of the legends in the business. To him, It’s his calling and his purpose.
“Music is all I think about. From the moment I wake up in the morning to the moment I fall asleep at night..”
One faithful day, Joe gets the gracious opportunity to audition for a legendary jazz saxophonist named Dorothea Williams (a stern, no-nonsense Angela Bassett). Turns out, Williams needs a pianist in her quartet for an upcoming gig at a nightclub. Joe was referred to her by a former student of his, Curly (an enthusiastic Questlove), whose also the drummer in her band. Needless to say, Joe wows Williams with his dynamite skills behind a piano and gets the job to play with the group. Soon after, the ecstatic Joe tragically and accidentally falls down an open manhole into the sewers….and dies. In an ironic twist, the best day of his life becomes his last.
Now as a disembodied soul, Joe wakes up on an escalator in the dark abyss, that’s slowly ascending to The Great Beyond. The afterlife. Heaven. Whatever your interpretation may be. Unsurprisingly, he freaks out because he’s going to miss the chance to perform. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime, right? So he frantically breaks through the barrier surrounding the escalator and falls into the abyss. After falling for quite awhile he lands in The Great Before, a limitless realm where souls are created, mentored, and given personalities and interests before heading to Earth and occupying a human body.
Desperate and running out of time, Joe devices a plan to get back to earth by becoming a mentor to a soul, and as luck would have it, he gets assigned to a troublesome one named 22 (a vibrant Tina Fey), an extroverted, sassy, impulsive, cynic whose gone through tons of other mentors before. Since souls are named by numerical order, that would suggest that She/he is the 22th soul ever created in the history of the world. Which means She/he has been in the realm for thousands of years because they simply don’t want to live on Earth. They don’t see the hype, doesn’t want the headache, and is perfectly fine in the realm. After Joe quickly drops the charade and comes clean about his mission, the unlikely duo embark on a journey to explore the inner/outer workings of the great before and find a way back to Joe’s body. A spiritual trip through life, death, reason, choice, the grand design and suborbital existentialism ensues.
“You can’t crush a soul here. That’s what life on earth is for.”
Right off the bat let’s discuss the technical aspects of the film. I mean, it’s no surprise that this is one of the most gorgeous stories ever animated. Pixar is truly one of the top tier companies (Along with DreamWorks, Toei, Warner Bros, Madhouse, and Ufotable Studios) and they continue that illustrious streak here. The backgrounds, foregrounds, color coordination, hues, shades, compositions, fluidity, 2-D mixed with 3-D formations, and the fantasy and realism of so many of these sequences are simply breathtaking. We are so fortunate and spoiled nowadays with animated filmmaking it’s freaking ridiculous.
Next up is that impeccable score, worthy of the oscar it received thanks to musical legends Jon Batiste, Trent Raznor, and Atticus Ross, who composed the score and many of the sounds and references throughout the film’s runtime. They even used Batiste’s jam sessions on the piano as a means of animating Joe doing the same in the story. This is certainly in keeping with that realism I was talking about earlier. The animators drew from the absolute best and it paid off swimmingly. Oh and it goes without saying if you haven’t already, I urge you to seek out Batiste, Ross, and Reznor’s respective works. You won’t be disappointed. In the slightest. Last but not least, let’s discuss how this film relatively affected me at a time I needed to be affected.
“I heard this story about a fish, he swims up to an older fish and says: ‘I’m trying to find this thing they call the ocean.’ ‘The ocean?’ the older fish says, ‘that’s what you’re in right now. ‘ ‘This’, says the young fish, ‘this is water.’….”
As our unlikely duo travel through the afterlife and beyond, they start to learn about each other as well as themselves. When it comes to Joe, there’s no doubt that the man is seriously talented. When playing the piano, he’s euphorically transported to another stream of consciousness. Which apparently is not only a sensational experience but an otherworldly one. It’s wondrous to behold and witness through his eyes. Unfortunately, the problem is Joe seems to believe if he doesn’t get that proverbial big break, his life is utterly wasted. He’s so focus on that goal, even after death, that he misses out on many contributions made in his years on earth. Missed opportunities to establish relationships, connections, and friendships. He especially misses the fact that he’s actually taught and inspired others, like Curly and one of his current students, Connie (Cora Champommier, whose playing was modeled after trombonist Andy Martin), who develops a passion for music, thanks to him. His entire identity is regulated to one singular thing. But through his journey with 22, he comes to this harsh realization about himself and much more. In one of the most beautiful scenes in the entire story, Joe takes a quiet, self-reflective minute…and simply remembers various times in his life. Small, big, everything in-between. It’s in this sequence, one of the stellar messages in this story, truly forms. Joe was so obsessed with making his life mean something, he didn’t realize his life was already meaningful. And in a way, we as an audience learn that lesson as well — Our lives have substance beyond personal ambition, in all its beauty and splendor. We just have to take a minute, remember, and remind ourselves of that very substance and more on the horizon.
“Is all this living truly worth dying for?”
When it comes to 22, they have a completely different revelation in this journey. At first, they aren’t willing to give up the great before simply because earth and the prospect of living a mortal existence sounds like a cesspool of responsibility, disappointments, and being completely overwhelmed by it all. Yet, with Joe, they learn that there’s wonderful joys and experiences in just simply living. From the smallest activities to the biggest marvels. A human life has tons to see, touch, taste, sense, and feel…and it’s how individuals choose to approach everything they do that provides their lives with meaning…provides them with happiness and maybe even a purpose. It’s what makes 22 realize that life…is worth living after all. And that deep down, they are worth something. Something real. Something beautiful. Just..something.
There’s so many elements I took from this film that it was eerie as well as spectacular. I’ve known many people like Joe and 22. Hell, I dare say I saw myself in both of them a few times during this feature, and it reminded me of my own humble life as well as others I’ve loved, cared for, and supported. People who are so focused on their responsibilities, goals, dreams, traumas, tribulations, pasts, and mistakes and they don’t see themselves. They don’t see life and what it has to offer. This film encourages us to not continuously beat ourselves up for not being somebody, but to pursue life, enjoying its ups and downs, our connections to people, good times, good food, the trees, the birds, the skies, and everything in-between. It’s a healthy and spiritual meditation on generations who were raised and conditioned on trying to be somebody instead of just….being. It’s a great message. One so many need to hear, including me.
This film, in all its serenity and existentialism, is interspersed within the echelon of the conventional but unconventional, to the point that it’s relatively easy to forget it’s even a film. The producers, animators, musicians, and actors have crafted something undeniably immersive, splendid, and significantly warming. It works on a variety of levels, for children and especially for adults. It breaks boundaries with its commentary and ambitions, becoming one of the best Pixar movies ever conceived. It came along at the exact right time for me, as plenty of films have in the past…and I will always have a special place for it in my mind, body, and…you know the rest.
So yeah…The most I can say is; Thanks Pixar, for showing me that there’s still so much life left to live. And that no matter what, I’m enough. And always will be.
“How’re you going to spend your life?”
“Ya know, I’m not sure….But I do know….I’m going to live every minute of it.”
Review written by Marcus Wilturner