It’s pretty amazing how serendipitous life can be sometimes. If you’ll allow the slight self-serving nature of my discussing my recent personal life (which also serves as a way to cover a little more of my last extended absence from this blog that I tried to not touch on in my return review), after the gauntlet of the past year or so finally started to show signs of ebbing, and I began to get more growing inclinations to (among other things) not just watch movies again, but to write about them as well, there were still other factors that I would need to work out in terms of making sure I kept going and didn’t just fall back into old patterns that would threaten to relapse me back into the funk, so to speak. One of those that I’ve been thinking about a lot in particular for the past month or so is what to do or how to fill the time that my brain would otherwise run on autopilot enough to just have me doing the same things that kept me stuck and not uncomfortable for so long, and in particular that I personally find it very difficult to “do things” if there isn’t an actual purpose to doing it, either in a goal or target to complete or as a stepping stone/puzzle piece that I know will ultimately lead to something that I do want (which is usually also in the form of a goal or something quantifiable). Basically, I struggle a lot with doing anything in life, and really in just “doing life”, just for the hell of it, for the actual journey and not the destination. Now, while I definitely can’t say that this problem of mine is anywhere close to being resolved, or even how to go about doing it, it is still really something that this has been the main focus of my therapy and self-consideration for at least the past couple months, and then to have a film like Soul come along, the latest Pete Docter film from the Pixar family, and have it use the story it tells to basically present a message that could possibly serve as an answer, if not just to me but to a question that all of us have asked at some point in our lives.
Joe Gardner is a part-time middle school music teacher in the hustle and bustle of New York City, but what he really dreams of being is a full-time jazz pianist, a purpose and dream he’s clung to for most of his life. After a former student of his calls him up and tells him there’s an opening in a jazz quartet he plays drums in, a quartet led by well-regarded saxophonist Dorothea Williams, Joe rushes over to audition & manages to impress Williams enough for a try-out gig with the quartet that evening, but is so elated at his dream finally starting to come true that he absent-mindedly walks right into an open manhole… and comes to on a cosmic conveyor belt ferrying dead souls to the Great Beyond. Fleeing in a panic and winding up in a pre-life meadow for burgeoning souls called the Great Before, Joe must now figure out a way to get back to his body on Earth before he misses his shot at finally making something of his life, made all the more difficult by Joe mistakenly becoming an official mentor to a soul numbered 22, who would rather spend eternity in the Great Before than bothering with anything about Earth that may make life worth living.
If you haven’t seen the film yet and are worried that plot summary might seem a bit too detailed, don’t be; there is a lot more to the film that I haven’t laid out, and a good number of turns to the plot that you might not be thinking of if you’re thinking the story of this film is like a lot of others you’ve seen before. Really, when I started Soul, I was surprised at the speed the film was moving right from the opening minutes; we get Joe’s entire character and backstory, his audition with Dorothea, his accident & conveyor belt ride to the Great Beyond, and his introduction to the Great Before, all in the first ten to fifteen minutes, to where I wasn’t sure if the film would be able to sustain its pace and still fill the runtime with the story it was telling. Thankfully, the setting of the Great Before provides the film ample opportunity to settle down, and while other films of its kind would have the main narrative thread be getting Joe back to his body to form the climax of the story, Docter and his co-writers make the smart decision to throw Joe and 22 back into the real world with a good half of the film still left to go, and letting this alternate take on the conventional narrative choice itself form the real impetus of conveying the film’s message to both the duo of Joe and 22 as well as us the viewers. Docter and his writing staff apparently went through numerous revisions and potential ideas of the story, and after settling on an African-American lead and jazz music as the background, they even brought together a “Cultural Trust” of numerous black collaborators, both Pixar staff and outside consultants, to both provide input and feedback on the story as well as aid in fleshing out the cultural backdrop of Joe and his life in New York City, and to make sure not only that the film’s depictions were accurate but also not accidentally disparaging or stereotypical. All of this work, both in revising the narrative and filling out the reality of Joe’s life as a black musician in NYC, is what really makes the film feel as thoroughly considered and well-developed as it does, and is probably the second-largest aspect that contributed to the four-year-long production time; what had to be the biggest factor is the actual animation and the visual splendor put on display, both in the real-world setting of New York and in the various pre-and-post-life worlds Joe and 22 visit throughout the film. It of course goes without saying, with a Pixar film, that the visual elements always look amazing, so for me to sit here and make a particularly emphatic point of stressing just how visually stunning Soul is as an animated film should give you a clue that Pixar, even with them being Pixar, have really upped their game with this one, and I only watched Soul streaming on my laptop; I can’t imagine how amazing this would’ve looked in the theater, which thanks to the pandemic we didn’t get to have happen in the States. One last shout-out goes to the score, both the jazz pieces and the rest of the music as well, which was an overall enchanting piece of work, and I’m glad this managed to win that additional Oscar as well as the one for Animated Feature.
While I was watching this, which I did on a whim today and mostly to check off the last box on the last 1001 additions more than anything, I was unsure if it would really end up standing the test of time, rather than just being another great Pixar flick that admittedly we’ve gotten accustomed to seeing from them. Even with how visually stunning the film is, and the level of quality also apparent in the audio work as well, there was a small part of me in the back of my head that was thinking beyond wondering if the film would be able to stick the landing; of whether or not this would be something to really remember and take note of, instead of becoming just another book on the shelf for Pixar. It’s been my realizations in connecting the ultimate moral of the film with the open-ended question I’ve been unable to resolve in my own life as of late, and that my doing so has taken up a good amount of time into the evening, several hours after the film ended, that leads me to think that Soul will become a bit of a hidden gem in the years to come. For all that we do in life, to keep up with the grind or to cross off items to get done or even just to continue existence, it’s life itself that is still a really special thing, and it is all too easy to forget all the little things that make life itself worth living, and finding a film like Soul in the roughage and the void of existence can be that one little thing that, whenever you find it, reminds you of what makes life great. It may not be a purpose in life, or a goal to complete, or a dream to strive for, but if it makes you happy, if it brings you joy over time or even in an innocuous fraction of a moment… that can be enough meaning for you. I’m glad that I managed to see Soul at the point in my life that I probably needed it the most, and whether or not I can find some semblance of purpose or joy in life the way Joe does, I think my appreciation for the film will only grow in the time ahead.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10
And that’s finally the previous batch of 1001 additions over and done with, along with a new personal record in single-post word count. Hopefully I can keep things going in getting back to Best Picture, though who’s to say if I continue to be as overly lengthy about it.