Joe Gardner has always had modest ambitions. Passionate about music, his primary goal has been to play in a band, not so much for fame and fortune, but just to do what he loves. As long as he could make enough to survive, he’d be happy.
But like so many of us, he’s made compromises and concessions, at times justified, pushing his dream to the side for more practical reasons, always intending to focus on it again when the time was right. However, time has passed, opportunities have become rare, and his passion has faded and threatens to become something that gnaws and festers.
Joe has settled in as a music teacher at a public school. However, an opportunity pops up from out of the blue to play at a renowned New York City club with a respected quartet. Too bad Joe dies before he can give his dream one final shot.
That’s the setup for Pete Docter and Kemp Powers’ “Soul,” a beautiful meditation on life and all that makes it worth living. It’s a simple- enough theme, yet what with the scattered lives we lead and the vagaries of 2020 weighing on our shoulders, the inspiration this Pixar film supplies when firing on all cylinders is very much in need. And while this simple tale threatens to jump the tracks with a silly subplot, it rights itself and proves to be one of the studio’s best and most moving productions.
After a former student calls Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) telling him he’s set up an audition for him with the great jazz artist Dorethea Williams (Angela Bassett), he’s over the moon, even more when he lands the job to play piano in her quartet.
Unfortunately, his zeal to rush home to tell his mother causes him to fall into an open manhole cover, and before you know it, he’s riding a massive escalator to heaven.
Sensing it’s not his time, Joe hightails it out of there and finds himself in The Great Before, a serene locale populated by new souls not fully formed.
Desperate to return to Earth, a bargain is struck, and our hero is assigned Soul 22 (Tina Fey), a belligerent sprite yet to find her spark, the thing that will develop into her passion in life. It’s Joe’s job to help her find it.
The imagination in the script by Mike Jones, Doctor and Powers is overwhelming, one clever concept tripping on the heels of the next, uproarious jokes flying left and right, genuine sentiment underpinning it all.
Much like Docter’s “Inside Out,” the film does a masterful job of personifying emotions and behaviors in striking visual and behavioral terms, most memorable being the lost souls doomed to wander in limbo. Black, shapeless figures, they aimlessly drudge through a grim landscape, their single eye searching for purpose.
It’s a haunting image that serves as a stark counterpoint for the sights that put everything into perspective for Joe.
Rivaling the heartbreaking opening of Docter’s “Up,” he witnesses a series of seemingly mundane events from his life as well as a litany of everyday treasures, all of which he’s taken for granted. In realizing the beauty in all these things, Joe rediscovers his spark.
Our world and so much of what it contains makes life worth living. It’s a simple notion, but “Soul” drives home this message with subtle grace, making it one of the most moving films of the year.
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