Pixar’s Chief Creative Director Pete Docter might not have thought that his midlife career crisis would find global resonance through prophetic animation. “Soul,” released late last year in more than 40 countries, caps 2020 with an evanescent yet necessary antidote. The movie tells the story of a middle-aged jazz musician who is singularly obsessed with artistic success, eventually realizing the beauty of life’s mundanity.
The brainchild of Docter, “Soul” is the first Pixar film to have a Black leading character, voiced by Jamie Foxx, and a Black writer-director, Kemp Powers. It is also the first time Pixar ventures into recreating the realistic urban environment of New York City, as well as animating the most elusive human element — the soul. Despite its occasional Knicks joke and sardonic asides, “Soul” has an overarching moral message that is especially timely, which can be summed up with, “Don’t be so consumed with the destination that you fail to enjoy the journey.”
Our hero, Joe Gardner (Foxx), is a meek middle-school jazz teacher who aspires to perform on big stages for connoisseur crowds but is stuck in his ordinary tedious life. Eventually, he lands the gig of his dreams, only to fall into a city manhole that lands him in an ethereal purgatory. Scared and flustered, Joe, now a greenish-white blob, pushes against the crowd moving towards an afterlife space called “The Great Beyond” and accidentally lands on “The Great Before,” an airy sort of Teletubbyland where indistinguishably blobby unborn souls are prepared for life on Earth.
The modest prologue soon gives in to a head-spinning journey involving multiple body and soul swaps. Everything in the otherworldly place works in a godly fashion and is highly ordered. New souls acquire their personalities through the “Personalities Pavilion” and gain interests and life wisdom through seminars. The counselors, Picasso-style cubist figures all called “Jerry,” interact with both new and deceased souls to guide the new ones in acquiring the “Earth Pass.” Mistaken as a mentor, Joe is paired with an ornery soul called 22, voiced by Tina Fey, whose contempt for the Earth makes her amused by Joe’s desperation to return. 22 agrees to help Joe get back by trying, once again, to find the spark — the last thing she needs to be Earth-ready.
Honestly, throughout the movie, I kept wondering what sins Joe must have committed in his previous life that he deserves such a wretched fate. He does not need to die to get a second chance at life, and that redemption shouldn’t come at the cost of saving this wretched creature.
22 is a seasoned cynic and long-time resident of the pre-birth place. She has been the mentee of the world’s most revered luminaries, but she still manages to make Mother Teresa cry. 22 knows a lot, if not everything, about life except actually living it. With half-opened eyes, a snide smile exposing buck teeth and a brassy voice that she proudly brags ”annoys people,” 22 equally charms and irritates us. Yet with all her cynicism, 22 holds the most emotional climax of the movie. Watching her rejoice on the streets of New York over a falling leaf and blowing steam makes us appreciate the tiniest things in life we often take for granted.