Updated: Mar 10, 2021
Every once in a while, it's possible you might find yourself entranced by a movie, animated or live-action, that took its time to talk about topics you usually would not have dwelt too much on. And not only was that movie able to do so to outstanding results, but it ultimately amounted to an enlightening experience. Have you ever seen a movie quite like what I described just now?
I'm asking you this question because my family and I went through a similar experience as we watched Soul.
Released on Disney+ as opposed to in theaters (and I really wish it was released in theaters), it is about a music teacher in New York City named Joe Gardner, who dreamt of becoming a professional jazz musician. One day, he met up with his bandmates, who he practiced jazz with for quite some time, and got geared up for an audition with famous superstar Dorothea Williams. After it ended up as a success, Joe wandered through the streets as happy as a clam until he accidentally fell down a sewer hole. The next thing he knew, he somehow became a spiritual consciousness. At first, Joe ended up in the entrance to the Great Beyond, and once he started to see all the other souls venturing there, Joe complained and fretted about not being ready to be dearly departed. So, in a hassle to try and escape the Great Beyond, Joe stumbled and continued to fall into the deepest reaches of space until he finally ended up in a different realm: the Great Before. There, souls were created, curated, and shown the ropes on life elements to explore, mostly in a facility called the You Seminar. Once these souls found their true calling, they got set to 'graduate' from the Great Before and enter the world as newborn people. After being mistaken for a famous psychiatrist, Joe became partnered up with a soul, whose name was 22. With Joe as her partner, and as these two got to know each other more, they hatched a plan for Joe to get back to the real world, and only when they managed to see the goings-on in that world did they, especially Joe, discover that he became hospitalized after his fall.
The characters were all very identifiable and expressed levels of complexity to them. All Joe Gardner wanted to do was live out his dreams of becoming a top-ranking jazz musician, except he was held back by his job as a music teacher. It didn't help that he was so good at that job that he was upgraded from being a part-time music teacher to a full-time music teacher, and Joe was left conflicted about his life choices and what he wanted to do with them. That is to say until he went into the Great Before, and from there, he started to pick up on the more extraordinary things worth pondering over. 22 was quite a handful as a soul and a character. She was sarcastic, had an extensive view of life as she saw it, mentored many people before her - including famous people like Abraham Lincoln - and had a more 'Been There, Done That' attitude like she wondered more than once why life was worth living. However, for all her know-how of life on Earth, even she discovered that she didn't learn or experience everything, for she never knew what a mortal body felt like, among other things. The omniscient beings who watched over the Great Before, all of whom were named Jerry, were ethereal beings who just did their job of watching over every newfound soul that came to be until they were ready for the real world. One of the other beings who, with his abacuses, watched over the souls about to go into the Great Beyond, named Terry, was a bit of a perfectionist who did not like to miss specific details that slipped under his radar, nor was he a fan of miscalculations. And once he caught on to something that didn't add up, he went to great, extreme lengths to try and correct it. A wild soul named Moonwind was the captain of a rainbow-colored ship that he steered around through the Astral Plane...even though, clearly, the ship in its color patterns looked like it had some ties to psychedelia. He was accompanied by other souls, who claimed they made it there through meditation. What made Moonwind's presence in this world more bizarre was that in real life, he was a sign twirler who, on the contrary, never died. In other words, he can escape the real world and enter the Astral Plane probably at will. It makes you wonder how people can deliberately leave the real world, without ever giving it up through death, to pursue the joys, beauties, and mysteries of the spiritual world.
The music by Joe Batiste, Trent Reznor, and Atticus Ross was just gracious. In all its melody, regular or jazz-influenced, it can play with your emotions and usually leave you in a more meditative, sensory state of mind. The music's rhythms felt just like Joe himself; sometimes, it can be joyful, like when he played his music. But other times, it can be ominous out of uncertainty or just straight-up bittersweet. It even took over in telling parts of the story for us, until eventually, it reached the same level of evocation as the movie's themes of being. It just hit all the right notes.
The humor from this movie, take my word for it, was full of surprises. I knew coming in that since this was a Pixar film, it was bound to have some humor in it. But what I saw from the movie...is actually prompting me to slap a 'Spoiler Alert' label, as the rest of the review will contain those, so you've been warned.
Some of the humor the movie started with seemed a little bit generic. Most of it came from 22, with her retorts about Joe, or life, or even when Joe took her out to experiment with certain professions. And that was just so she could have been allowed to enter Earth, which was what Joe wanted to do through her. By the time they succeeded in making it back to Earth, Joe was excited to be back home, only to discover that he was in the body of a therapy cat named Mr. Mittens, while 22 ended up inheriting Joe's body instead. But it got even better. Only Joe and 22 knew who's in which body, while the outside world still didn't know who's who since they thought that Joe was still Joe and that the therapy cat, Mr. Mittens, was still Mr. Mittens. It led to a healthy dose of pratfalls among them, but at the same time, it also opened their eyes to different parts of life they didn't even think of. Joe got a better understanding of how people and animals functioned the way they did, and even 22 got a good kick in the pants when she experienced the five senses for the first time, like touch, smell, sight, and taste. 22's exaggerated responses over what she hasn't experienced before through Joe's physical motions maintained the surprising dosage of humor uncovered from this Freaky Friday scenario. Nevertheless, it was also super intriguing to see her opening up to certain parts of life that even she knew nothing about before this.
The story was a fresh take on exploring existential ideas and self-discovery. As the movie told its story with those ideas in mind, it also prompted plenty of questions to ponder over, like what it means to do what you love or what you can do to live up to your calling. As Joe, then 22, and even we, the audience, figured out, life may seem monotonous, but at some point or another, there may come a time where life has some surprises in store. And watching them transcend different parts of life, whether it's on Earth or even in the depths of space and spiritual realms, only added to its strengthening contemplation of life. Other times, it took the time to give us a glimpse into the mindsets and dilemmas of other characters, such as Joe's mother or even the barber that Joe usually saw. Unlike other such experiential films as Fantasia, 2001 or even The Tree of Life, rather than letting us experience aspects of life through sight, Soul allowed us to experience aspects of life by feeling present with them, starting with from the points of view of both Joe and 22. The more delightful parts of the movie may have acted like its coating, but it still amounted to a rich, flavorful payoff all the same.
And, of course, the animation. Good Lord, man. The animation is 20 flavors of marvelous! I swear, this was hands-down one of the best forms of animation I've ever seen since Moana. The animation and atmosphere of New York City were just one step away from feeling like a photorealistic recreation of New York City, down to the details, the colors, the buildings, and even the crowds, which in and of itself were just a feast for the eyes. Don't get me wrong, Pixar excelled at telling human stories with exquisite animation before, and whenever Pixar did its animation, they were usually at the top of their A-game. Even Ratatouille, one of my favorite films, benefitted from a rich sense of atmosphere that complimented the movie beautifully, down to the Parisian settings. But something about this recreation of New York City just felt more like you could live and breathe in this world. And I think it centered on the details, such as on the musical instruments, the gold lacing on Dorothea Williams's dress, Joe's hair and stubble, or even the helicopter leaves in their flight downwards. They were very immaculate and helped the world feel very believable. Even the characters' movements tied into New York City's atmosphere and helped make it feel real.
You see, there's a difference between realistic and real. When things and people felt real, they felt authentic. And I can tell you, the dilemmas were authentic. The movements were authentic. The style of the clothes, the characters' ways of speaking, they all helped propel me as steadily as possible into this world and feel like I can dwell there.
By the time the movie took me to the Great Beyond, the Great Before, or even the Astral Plane, it brought forth a whole 'nother level of animation. These worlds blended 3d animation and 2d animation to striking effect, creating beings who were like us and yet also unlike us. The beings being in 2d, the characters being in 3d, and both worlds each expressing different levels of details and styles, they helped us differentiate who's who and what's what. Even Terry, when he ventured into the real world to track down Joe - I'll explain why very shortly - the way he was animated as he snuck his way throughout every corner of the city was very clever and stylishly stood out every time. At this rate, the animation and the worldbuilding felt made for each other.
Shortly after watching this movie with my family and friend, who was over to see it with me, it left me wondering for over half an hour about what in-betweens there could be out there that bridges life and death. I thought of such things as being in a coma or engaging in out-of-body experiences and even more existential questions: What happens if you cheat death? What can, could, or would you see before you regain consciousness? How would we cheat death? Do we have a choice on whether to cheat death or not? It's all those little things that tell us that we'll never know what life may throw at us, what may come our way, or even what may come our way mortally. Sometimes, we may not always be ready or prepared for life's greatest gifts or adversities.
This kind of contemplation about life was brought forth to us beautifully, starting from Soul's ending. As Joe and 22 parted ways as they geared up for their ventures back to Earth for good, with 22 about to be born on Earth and Joe reuniting himself with his own body, the movie intentionally left vague how things could go about their way. During the last few adventures we saw of Joe in his own mortal body, Joe got his teaching job upgraded from part-time to full-time and had a successful first gig with Dorothea and the band. But then, when he talked with her outside, she told him that they would have had to get set to do the concert again, telling him that a fish can breathe in the water he yearned for, but there's only so long he can be begging for the ocean. At first, this felt like a letdown, but she was not wrong. We can always strive to achieve one dream, but we'll have to decide where to go from there once we do. And that's precisely what the movie asked us: where can we go from where we've left off? The same thing with Joe. Is he going to continue doing his gig? Might he intend to balance out his educational work with his musical pursuits? Or might he stick to teaching after all? This side of Joe's story, plus that of 22 as she prepared to be born on Earth, no matter where she would be born in or who she would be born as, was left open for us viewers to interpret with our senses of logic and imagination. I applaud Soul for ending on such a high, thought-provoking note.
Pixar was always known to breach demographics and speak to adults and children, almost with seamless results. It did so by introducing elements that can be interpreted one way by kids, while it can be interpreted another way entirely by the adults. The most noticeable aspect of Soul's ways of breaching them that I know of might be Terry. He kept track on the dearly departed who were ready to trek on to the Great Beyond with his abacuses, and once he spotted the one miscalculation concerning Joe, he went to great lengths to take him, as well as 22, who was with him, back to the Great Before. To the children, he could very well come across as the villain. But to the adults, he was only doing his job and took things way too far when he tried to correct a problem. And I think most of it had to do with how obsessive he can be about it, and even then, that's pretty relatable. We all had our frustrations with things not going right. It also asked us to wonder: whoever up above checks on the dearly departed and decides which ones would go to Heaven or Hell, can they, too, lose track of which souls went where just because some of them may have cheated death?
Overall, the movie benefited from a balance of whimsical, simplistic designs with very intriguing ideas. Half of the film was stylish, with the imagery being soft, pleasant, and colorful, something that elementary school kids could eat up. Underneath it, however, it's a multilayered interpretation of existentialism and questions about it. What's worth living? Why do we live? What does death feel like? How are we like before we're even born? What's our role on Earth? What's our role in the universe? What's our role in life? What means the most to us as people? These are all sophisticated ideas about existentialism. If a movie managed to speak to both children and adults while treating them very seriously with a stylish outlook, deep questions, and sophisticated allegories, that is the mark of a masterful family film. But suppose it introduced topics that we usually don't talk about to a point where it left us wondering about them for a good portion of time afterward, not to mention with a tingling of the senses, emotions, logical thought-processing, and ponderance over life's greatest mysteries. In that case, that is the mark of a masterful film. Period.
Much like the people in the barbershop as 22, in Joe's body, told them her life story, the movie steadily drew viewers like me in with its worlds, fleshed-out characters, aspects of life (natural or supernatural), rhythmic, inspiring, soothing music, contemplative storytelling, and multifaceted animation.
Ready to experience something that will leave you with your soul touched? Well, I promise you, mine sure was by this movie.
My Rating: A