Soul

Soul is a clever examination of the nature of being presented in the guise of an animated feature.  The movie delves into what comprises our souls, from how we get the different aspects of our personality, to what gives our lives its spark (or inspiration).  As expected, the animation in Soul is exceptional, and its depictions of the Great Beyond (and the Great Before) are a treat for the eyes.  Soul’s main story focuses on one man’s dream to become a professional jazz pianist, and how that may or may not be his calling in life.  While Soul doesn’t reach the same emotional height as Inside Out, it is insightful, thought provoking and very funny.  Highly recommended.

Oh you mentors and your passions. Your purposes. Your meanings of life. So Basic.

Jerry

Soul can best be described as a companion piece to Inside Out.  This makes sense because one of the writers and directors of both Soul and Inside Out is Pete Docter.  Whereas Inside Out focused on the five emotions that drive our interactions with the world, Soul delves into the personality traits that make up our being, or soul.  Up, another Pixar movie directed and written by Docter, explored the effect of holding onto the past at the expense of experiencing life.  Grouped together, Up, Inside Out and Soul all provide effective vehicles for us to ponder our lives as human beings: what drives us, what makes us tick and what holds us back.  Watching them is much cheaper than paying a therapist and probably more effective.  Unknown at this time is whether Docter will continue his exploration of the psychology of human existence in other areas.  Maybe it’s time for a cartoon focusing on Rorschach, Pavlov or Maslow into the Pixar universe.  (Milgram would probably be a bit too dark for a cartoon.)

To explore its subject, Soul focuses on two characters: Joe, a piano player and part-time high school music teacher, and 22 a soul who has never been alive.  While Joe has been waiting his whole life for his dream to come true (being a member of a jazz band), 22 has been avoiding becoming alive because nothing about life excites her.  As Soul plays out, we learn that Joe and 22 are an odd couple but they do share a common trait: a tendency to avoid living.

Soul begins by focusing on the life of Joe (Jamie Foxx).  He’s a middle-aged African American who’s a part-time music teacher.  He’s been waiting his whole life for his dream to come true: becoming a professional jazz musician.  As fate would have it, the day he’s offered a full-time teaching position, he’s also given the opportunity to rehearse with renowned jazz saxophonist Dorothea Williams  (a no-nonsense Angela Bassett).  Joe insists to his exasperated mother Libba (an excellent Phylicia Rashad) that he has a plan, and heads to his audition.

Joe’s improvisation impresses Dorothea and he wins a spot for that evening’s show.  In a funny sequence reminiscent of the Loony Tunes cartoons, Joe rambles away excitedly on his cell phone while avoiding all manner of dangers he’s oblivious too.  Unfortunately, he can’t avoid the last one.  Joe wakes up and finds himself on an escalator heading towards the Great Beyond.  Incredulous, Joe can’t believe that his life is over just when he got his big break.  This scene is amazing for its starkness and otherworldliness, as well as a sly bit of humor: when souls are absorbed into the great beyond, the sound they make is like flies hitting a bug zapper.  Joe fights his way off of the escalator lands on the other side of the existential realm, Great Before (a.k.a. the You Seminar thanks to rebranding).  

The Great Before is filled with souls that look like blue mushrooms and talk like little kids.  Shepherding the souls are Counselors, all of whom are named “Jerry” and look like Picasso line drawings.  One of the Jerry’s (Alice Braga) explains that in the Great Before, souls receive six  aspects of their personality from the Experience Pavilion.  Once each soul has a complete personality and a “spark”, they jump through the Earth Portal to become born.  (Assigning the personality traits is apparently a random act, which is a clever way of explaining how every person we meet is so unique.)  After trying unsuccessfully to jump down to Earth, Joe goes along with the misconception he’s a Mentor. Mentor’s are assigned a soul and help it to find its spark.

The spark could be something from the Hall of Everything, which is exactly as it sounds.  Your spark could come from archery, photography, baking, etc. Alternatively, the spark could come from the Hall of You, which serves as a visual museum of inspiring events from the Mentor’s life. Joe realizes that if he can help get a soul its spark, he can steal it and use that to return to Earth.  Unfortunately for Joe, he’s paired with 22, a soul unimpressed by everything and everyone.   (There’s a funny montage where the likes of Mother Teresa, Copernicus, Muhammad Ali and Marie Antoinette all express their frustration with 22.)  22 is content to hang out in the Great Before, causing mischief like tormenting the New York Knicks.

22 is drawn with buck teeth and rosy cheeks, like a supernatural Dennis the Menace.  As voiced by Tina Fey, the character has her trademark snarky delivery and glib sarcasm.  As a character, 22 is a preternatural underachiever, or spiritual slacker.  She’s content to remain at Great Before forever because she’s not convinced going to Earth is worth the trouble.  When Joe see’s his own life in the Hall of You, he’s convinced his life was meaningless.  Desperate to get back to Earth so he doesn’t miss his gig, Joe tries numerous things in the Hall of Everything, but nothing sparks 22.

22 decides to help Joe reunite with his body, and takes him to the zone, the place between the physical and spiritual.  There, 22 introduces Joe to Moonwind Stardancer (Graham Norton is hilarious) and his band of mystics.  They make it possible for Joe to reconnect with his body, but he is impatient and his reunification does not go as planned.  Joe’s soul winds up in a therapy cat, while 22 lands in Joe’s body.  

Thirty minutes in, I could tell Soul has a lot on its mind.  It covers a lot of ground very quickly,  touching on the afterlife, the prelife, personality, sparks, the zone and lost souls.  Generally speaking, Soul is careful rumination on the essence of being, what it means to be a person, what it means to be alive.  I found the way Soul represented these complex and esoteric concepts very interesting and disarming.  Four young kids though, those first thirty minutes may seem interminable, a lot of pretty pictures but all talk and no action.  

There are plenty of laughs generated out of the body swapping.  The middle section is filled with slapstick and jokes about cats and how smelly human bodies can be.  The body swapping does provide a useful change of perspective for both characters.  Joe gets to observe his interactions with other people, including his mother.  22 gets to experience what living actually means.  While the Hall of Everything provided simulations of things on Earth, they did not include any of the actual physical sensations that go along with it.  (In the afterlife, you can’t taste pizza, which is just cruel.)  On Earth, 22 finally gets to experience the simple pleasure of eating.  Additionally, 22 gets to enjoy other sensory pleasures: taking a shower, the rush of air from a subway vent, the sound of live music , the feeling of sunshine on your face.  She also gets to experience what relationships are all about through interactions with Joe’s friends and family.

Unfortunately for Joe, an afterlife account named Terry, who counts all of the souls who pass through to the great beyond (with an abacus, natch), notices that the count is off by one.  The other Counselors don’t seem to care much about the discrepancy, but Terry, being the determined bureaucratic functionary that he is, can’t let it go and eventually identifies Joe as the reason for the counts being off.  Terry heads to Earth to track down Joe and get him to pass through.  While exceptional animation is a Pixar hallmark, the mix of abstract line drawing Terry with the real world of New York is ingenious.

In the end, 22 gets her spark and agrees to go to Earth.  As a reward for inspiring the Counselors with his act of selflessness towards 22, Jerry is given a second chance at life.  Joe emerges from his walk-up happy and ready to live every minute of his second chance at life.  The movie abruptly ends there. But what did he decide to do with it?  Will he go back to teaching, or continue playing jazz every night?  Does he finally give Lisa a ring, someone on his mind but who is never seen in the movie?  I would have appreciated story cards along the lines of those included with the credits of Up, where we get to see what the characters after the story ended.

Throughout the movie, we see how Joe inspires others.  Even though playing jazz is his spark, he’s a natural teacher.  He gets the Dorothea Washington gig from one of his former students, and helps 22 get her spark by showing her what living really means.  In the end, I wasn’t entirely sure Joe realized that what he thought was his purpose in life (playing jazz piano) was just his spark, and what he’s resisted committing to (teaching) is actually what he’s meant to do.  Confusing what we like to do with our life’s purpose is a common problem for us Earthbound souls, I suppose.  Fortunately for Joe, he can combine his love of playing jazz with his knack for inspiring others into a long and successful career as a teacher.

Then there are those people who are convinced of what their purpose is, only to be thwarted by life itself.  The character of Buddy the Barber is a good example of someone who learned to make lemonade out of the lemons life gave to him.  He wanted to become a veterinarian, but the costs were too high.  He pragmatically settled into becoming a barber and learned that he not only gets to meet interesting people, but that he gets the opportunity to make them handsome and happy.  Buddy is the perfect example of someone who learns to roll with the punches life throws at you, finding a way to be happy with what he has, and not be upset over what he doesn’t have.

But what about people like 22?  What should people who aren’t sparked by a specific thing or person do with their lives?  In 22’s case, I believe she took inspiration from being alive.  The act of living was 22’s spark.  The message Soul has for people like 22 is that since they don’t have a definitive spark or inspiration for their lives, they should just enjoy life.  Enjoy that slice of pizza, the feeling of sunshine on your face, or that musician playing in the subway.  This isn’t a particularly heartening message for those people, though.  A lot of 22s end up spending time (and money) trying to find their spark or inspiration, only to come away empty handed.

Not to be left out of Soul’s examination of life’s purpose are parents.  As Joe’s mother Libba would likely attest, they truly are in the worst possible spot.  If they encourage their children to choose meaningful careers over dreams that may never come true, they aren’t supportive.  If they support their children’s dreams no matter the probability of them coming true, they aren’t acting as a voice of reason in their child’s life.  They can’t win either way, which is probably why most parents take either side when convenient and hope for the best.

Not everything is sweetness and light with Soul, however.  The movie does briefly touch on the darker aspects of being in the zone.  While the zone is the place where people go when they are doing something they love extremely well (i.e. Joe playing jazz), it also is where lost souls wind up when they give into obsessions and insecurities.  Those lost souls are depicted as hulking black masses that speak in distorted voices.  There’s a funny bit about hedge fund managers becoming lost souls because they are obsessed with trading.  Aside from 22 going there when she’s convinced she’s not good enough to live, Soul doesn’t really explore the dark side much.  I do give the creators behind Soul for acknowledging that it’s there.

The vocal talent behind Soul is excellent across the board.  As for Tina Fey voicing 22, I was fine with it.  I think the internet chatter on having a white woman play the character’s voice was overblown.  All of the souls are depicted in a racial-neutral way, so the actual race of the voice actor involved is irrelevant.  (In a preemptive move, Soul has Joe comment on how 22 sounds like a middle-aged white woman. 22 says she uses that particular voice because it annoys people.)  I believe the producers and director chose Fey because of her delivery, and she fits the character well.  In all fairness, the character could have been performed just as well by an actor like Issa Rae.  While everyone is entitled to their interpretation of a movie, I think social media nitpickers are missing the forest for the trees. Soul is an unabashed celebration of jazz, with many of its speaking parts performed by African Americans.

While Soul doesn’t reach the emotional highs of Inside Out or Up, I would add it to the ranks of other great movies about the afterlife, including Heaven Can Wait (1978), Defending Your Life (1991) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946).  Soul is a very cerebral animated feature, and I appreciated the many different intellectual aspects of it.

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