By Ed Sum
(The Vintage Tempest)
PIXAR’s got Soul in their latest film about Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a musician by trade and teacher when required. He needs a full-time job to pay the bills, but as most people will say, making the big leagues in the entertainment biz is tough and it demands much more.
Gardner wants to make mama happy. But being an instructor leaves him feeling unfulfilled. His dreams of being a professional musician means having a special type of freedom, which he tries to explain to his students: you become part of a special team, and the music made together–the harmonies–infect you. They bring out your soul (this film’s namesake) and when you are in that zone, the effect is an out-of-body experience to which this movie masterfully and colourfully visualizes.
When one of his students points out there’s an opening to become part of Dorothea Williams’ band, he’s on it faster than a honeybee to a flower. She’s a jazz legend, and he’s all willy-nilly. He gets the job, but on the journey home to get ready, he falls down a manhole and the title credits roll!
Most of the film sees him trip the light fantastic as he searches for a way to return to his body. The afterlife is very vivid; it doesn’t borrow from any recognized culture in its gleeful depiction. Spirits are diminutive, misty white caricatures, and the Jerrys (perhaps angels in the Christian sense) are the caretakers. These weird two dimensional Picasso like entities refer to themselves as soul counsellors. They help prepare individual baby Casper the Friendly Ghost-like figures (personalities) transition into becoming human.
I’m assuming they are quintessential parts of what defines each and every being. Over time, each one accumulates experiences known as sparks that they can carry forward to the next life when they are (re)born. The metaphysical constructs in this film aren’t hard to figure out, as they slightly borrow from Buddhism. The ideas from Pete Docter‘s imagination are original, and I had a fun time wondering where he comes up with these ideas! He wrote and directed Inside Out, and this work feels like an extension to this particular universe.
Our heroes have to be street smart if they are to survive, but to know everything is nigh impossible. Joe’s desire to awaken from his “nightmare” isn’t without a bunch of hurdles. His adventures aren’t a product of an overactive imagination. He’s not unconscious either. The story by Docter, Mike Jones and Kemp Powers deserves nominations as awards season is right around the corner!
In the opening act, Gardner tries to be a sensei to the kids, but they aren’t listening. In his catatonic state, he has to be one of those soul counsellors to escape notice in this astral realm, and 22 (Tina Fey), to which he has to tutor, is his newest student. He has to teach this sprite some valuable life lessons. However, a mistake lands the two back into reality, but in different bodies. Much of this hilarity is nothing new. Soul swapping is a trope sometimes used to reveal how to walk in another person’s shoes and recognize what you’ve got when you’re literally looking at yourself instead of using a mirror.
Gardner’s struggle becomes 22’s. This sprite has yet to experience a fulfilling human life. She purposely holds back, but after meeting this musician and not landing in the body they intended to occupy when heading to Earth, they discover life from the other’s eyes. The euphemism, “You got soul,” takes on a different meaning, and that’s where this film truly shines.
As with many PIXAR work, the joy here is in seeing the heroes learn about and identify with what they got. This film leaves you with that knowledge that life can turn around when you open your eyes. In Joe’s case, he’s not as maudlin anymore. If this studio can develop a crossover with Docter’s previous work, I’d be all over it. They are similar enough in world design where it’s possible.
5 Stars out of 5