' ' Cinema Romantico: Soul

Monday, February 22, 2021


The title of the latest Pixar adventure, “Soul”, refers not to music, though jazz does play a semi-prominent role, but to the essential core of a person. Co-directors Pete Docter and Kemp Powers literalize and lampoon the notion of a human being’s soul, not unlike the way Docter’s “Inside Out” had fun with the human mind, while taking us to fantastical places, a la Pixar’s Coco conjuring up the Land of the Dead. “Soul”, however, in toggling between breezy comedy for the kids and more existential questions for the adults works against an emergent theme of life’s meaning being distilled down to an appreciation of the little things by succumbing to its myriad aesthetic complications, a strange, occasionally great, beautifully animated, frequently muddled stew.

As “Soul” opens, Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a music teacher, is molding young musical minds. It’s a curious opening, if not a harbinger, where the kids come across inspired by Joe even as “Soul” simultaneously portrays him as teaching with one head out the door, more consumed with a desire to play jazz for a living, a message as distracted as Joe himself seems to be. At least, though, that distraction informs his downfall. After nailing an audition to play piano for a local jazz singer (Angela Bassett), Joe fails to see an open manhole in his excitement walking home and falls through. If this scene begins as comic setpiece of near misses, the transition is jarring in its suddenness, forcing us to recognize Joe’s instant death at the same rate as the character, while also proffering a subtextual lesson that wanting something too much or just wanting too much in general renders one blind to life’s peril.

Then again, death does not exactly enlighten Joe. Rendered a bodiless blob, Joe finds himself aboard a conveyor belt, imagining the ostensible sweet hereafter as a bleary subterranean airport walkway tracking toward The Great Beyond, a massive bright white light with a strange buzzing sound, like a refrigerator on the fritz. If other blobs simply stand there, at once transfixed and terrified, Joe turns and runs, still clinging to the belief his life had turned around, spilling off the walkway and into The Great Before, an enchanting place of blue fields and violet hills, where souls are molded for their Earthly descent to occupy a human. Mistaken for a mentor, Joe is assigned to 22 (Tina Fey), an insubordinate soul that has refused entering a human body for centuries, discouraged by the unpredictability of human life. Rather than guiding 22, however, she becomes something more like his co-conspirator, helping finagle a way to get Joe back into his body on Earth.

It is an inherently fascinating juxtaposition, a child, essentially, who does not want life to begin and an adult, more or less, who does not want life to stop. That 22 also takes Joe to The Zone, the mystical place where artists and athletes are said to lose themselves, but portrays it as a place where people are just as apt to lose themselves completely, “Soul” not only paints its two main characters as lost souls but brings to vivid life the scary side of obsession. Indeed, it redefines an earlier scene of Joe losing himself in music not as less moving than corrosive. From here “Soul” metamorphoses once again into a body switch comedy when the unlikely duo’s descent to Earth results in a mix-up: rather than re-entering his own body, Joe enters the body of a cat, while 22 enters the body of Joe. Though Joe finally transforms into something like 22’s shepherd through his feline form, the underlying connotations weigh this genre shift down. 

Though the nature of the movie’s soul suggests something apart from color, that’s the kind of cozy myth “Soul” cannot help but counteract in casting a white woman to give voice to 22, meaning it is a white voice coming out of a black body, a fundamental problem Docter clearly recognized by enlisting the black Powers as co-director. Granted, the involvement of Powers yields some of the movie’s strongest material, like a pair of scenes in a barbershop that feel delightfully as much like their own world as anything in The Great Before. As it is, however, an otherwise refreshing animated examination of black lives is compromised by this half blind point-of-view. 

At the same time, for all the The Great Before’s unique visual splendor, evincing its counselors as two-dimensional, almost like cubist paintings plucked from the canvas, as if whatever is Up There is beyond our imagination, the place itself is nevertheless strangely, even frighteningly, reminiscent of our world. Indeed, counselors dole out traits to souls like they are engines or hoods on an automobile assembly line, soul creationism, in a sense, mixed with the quota-based tempo of an American manufacturing line. Must even the afterworld assume the air of Amazon.com, Inc.?

It is in direct conflict, in fact, with how 22 autonomously grasps her essence. In this way, the body switch scenes, while tone deaf, are also the movie’s best, a variation on the idea of New York as a place to flee for reinvention. The animation of NYC might not be as imaginative as its invented worlds, inherently constrained by the real-life place, yet nevertheless achieves a transcendent beauty all its own. The dollops of autumn light, the way the light falls across the street, at once feels like both an identifiable New York and one that exists only in an idealized memory while everyday objects like a slice of New York-style pizza and a helicopter seed lyrically evince life’s (Earth’s) overwhelming beauty. “Soul” may be overstuffed and inconsistent, but when that seed falls from the sky, for a moment, being alive seems so simple. 

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