Life On Earth
If you’re reading this, you’re alive and you survived 2020. Trust me when I tell you, that’s good! We had an insanely acrimonious presidential election, a pandemic that almost completely caught the world unawares, and an economy that’s currently curled in the fetal position. Selfishness and willful ignorance swept the land. There was serious talk of secession. The whole thing sucked.
And then? Then, we passed across that hazy and insubstantial border to 2021. A new year. An opportunity to, if you’re a cynic, make laughable public promises to change your life and fail to do so. Years of work has transformed me into a somewhat grudging optimist, and I view the first few days of the new year as a time to make changes, incremental though they may be. A time to re-evaluate what I’m doing with my life.
Does the worth of a life need to be measured by productivity, though? My cat is profoundly unproductive. She spends her days a) sleeping b) hating the kitten that has been rudely forced into her life and c) occasionally snuggling with me. Her life still has worth, just like yours or mine. To grapple with thorny philosophical conundrums like that, there are two ways to go. You could dive headlong into philosophy through courses and books, and run the risk of severe confusion and/or boredom. I prefer the second option, in which the delivery system for existential dilemmas is entertainment.* That brings us to Soul, the latest film from animation juggernaut Pixar.
They say that man plans and God laughs. The Good Lord must have chortled heartily at the plans of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx). His original plan was to become a famous jazz musician. He loves jazz. It’s seeped into his very being, and he was so sure that if he just played, he would find a way to make it his life.
His life has come down to a job as a middle school music teacher. The job offers a secure paycheck and actual health insurance, something Joe’s mother Libba (Phylicia Rashad) reminds him of every chance she gets. Joe dreams of just one chance for something more, and that chance arrives in the form of Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). She’s a legendary saxophonist. There’s an opening in her band, and it’s Joe’s for the taking.
Certain his big break has arrived, Joe hustles home to prepare. He’s interrupted by gravity, specifically his falling down a manhole. Is he dead? It sure looks that way as he finds himself as a blobby soul essence, heading for the Great Beyond. That’s a hard pass from Joe, and he flees. Instead of returning to life, he ends up in The Great Before. That’s where counselors (all of them named Jerry) prepare souls for life prior to birth.
Complications ensue, and Joe is mistaken for a mentor, the beings assigned to help souls discover their “spark” and begin a life full of appreciation and purpose. Even more, complications ensue when Joe finds himself paired with 22 (Tina Fey). If the expression “meh” could be shaped into a living being (or pre-living, in this case), 22 would be the result. She’s a soul who’s resisted birth for eons and delighted in irritating scores of previous mentors, including Mother Teresa, Lincoln, and Carl Jung. Joe’s plan is simple — allegedly. He’ll help 22 to find her spark, she’ll be born, and he can return to his life and life-changing gig. Great plan, right?
After reading that synopsis, you might be thinking, “This sounds a touch like the premise for Inside Out. In point of fact, this sounds a touch like nearly every Pixar film that has ever been released, in which we see the bureaucracy that’s grown up around a concept like toys, superheroes, or emotions and the main character is confronted with a dilemma related to self-improvement.” I’d say you’re right, and I’d add that all of that is a good thing.
Pete Docter has been with Pixar since the beginning. He helped craft the story to…well, Toy Story, directed films such as Up and Inside Out, and directed Soul. Part of the reason the Pixar formula works is that he’s able to marry high concept ideas with legitimate emotion. He’s got it down to a science, the zippy pacing, the “Why didn’t I think of that?” set pieces, and the sense of timing. There’s a moment about halfway through the film where you can start to feel the narrative beginning to wheeze, and it’s that point where Docter zigzags things in a new direction. Doing that keeps the energy levels high when necessary. It’s not all a sugar rush, and Docter knows when to downshift and allow us to sit with the characters and feel what they’re feeling.
Kemp Powers co-directed, and his is a fascinating story. He did some serious writing on Star Trek: Discovery and wrote the screenplay for One Night in Miami. Powers initially was hired to co-write the screenplay for Soul** and based a great deal of Joe’s character on his own life and experiences. His contributions were so numerous that he earned his promotion to co-director, and the film is better for it. Joe feels like a fully realized character with a consistent point of view. The addition of Powers’ specificity and nuanced character work with Docter’s animation experience takes the film to another level, one I appreciated.
I have nothing against Disney’s animated output.*** By and large, I think you can compare their work to fast food. I don’t mean the disappointing crapola from McDonald’s. Instead, they’re a quality “fast casual” meal. The story might have a few levels to it, but they tend to be simple all the same. I’m not saying that Pixar is telling stories with the thematic complexity of an Ozu or Kubrick. I am saying that Pixar does what Disney does, only with more sophistication and layers. The screenplay by Docter, Mike Jones and Kemp Powers is about perspective, and as is the case with smart writing, they approach the theme from numerous fascinating angles. There’s the perspective of Joe as a Black man, Pixar’s first Black protagonist. There’s the perspective of how Joe views his life, 22’s performative cynicism, and how their views are challenged throughout the story. It’s all executed with a light and witty touch, delivering big ideas such as “What am I doing with my time on Earth” without hitting viewers over the head.
Pixar is able to attract top tier actors due to the high quality of their productions.**** That’s why we have Jamie Foxx as Joe, perhaps the perfect guy to play this character. Foxx has spent his life immersed in music, and you might recall his Academy Award-winning portrayal of Ray Charles. That lived experience, along with his customary intelligence, charm, and sense of humor, makes his performance a joy. Joe is an easy character to want to follow, with his nagging sense of not having lived up to his potential balanced with a determination to keep going and keep pushing forward. Even when he makes a decision out of selfishness or desperation, Foxx always keeps his performance honest and relatable.
He’s got a strong scene partner in Tina Fey, who contributed to the script by writing her character’s dialogue. When you have a writer on hand as sharp as Fey is, it’s wise to get the most out of her talent. As 22, she’s gotten herself into a comfortable rut, and her quiet enjoyment of tormenting her many, many mentors brings the funny. Fey is no slouch when it comes to her dramatic moments, and she does good work calibrating her performance to make the most of them.
Is Soul perfect? Nah. The rules of the universe feel a little sloppy sometimes, and Pixar tends to be laser-focused on those details. I don’t think it quite has the emotional power of Inside Out or the sheer entertaining energy of The Incredibles. In the end, I don’t think it really matters, since I found Soul to be delightful all the same. While I wouldn’t call it the best film of 2020, it was the best film for me to see in the beginning of 2021. It’s a welcome reminder that, even before it begins and after it ends, life can always get better.
*Or if you want the full philosophical buffet served up in entertainment form, you could watch The Good Place, which I cannot recommend enough.
**The original idea was for Joe to be a white character who chased dreams of rock stardom. Changing the focus makes for a far more interesting film.
***And I’ll go to bat for Zootopia any day of the week.****Along with the fact that it’s awesome for actors to be able to skip makeup, costumes, and just head to a recording booth wearing comfortable clothes.