MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Soul - Streaming on Disney+
Animated feature directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers
Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is a middle school band director who is facing a midlife crisis. He’s good at his job but aspires to spend more time gigging as a jazz pianist. An opportunity comes to audition to play for visiting singer and sax player Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). After a tension-filled tryout in which Joe dares to play an extended solo, Dorothea likes what she hears and tells him to show up that night for the gig. Filled with joy, Joe walks home with a smile on his face and a bounce in his step.
And then he falls down an open manhole and finds himself in a heavenly afterworld on a moving conveyor belt headed for the Great Beyond. There’s a light at the end of the walkway, but Joe doesn’t want to surrender himself to that inevitability. He runs the other way.
And Soul is just beginning to get complicated.
To paraphrase Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz: I have a feeling we’re not in Christian heaven anymore. We’re not even in the movie heaven of It’s a Wonderful Life, but in a world more akin to television’s The Good Place, in which existential questions about identity, meaning and purpose hold sway. Joe will eventually discover an area in the afterlife name the Great Before where souls in training are assigned mentors to prepare them for their journey to Earth. Joe is assigned Soul Number 22 (Tina Fey) whose belligerent cynicism and sarcasm has tried the patience of countless mentors before, including Mother Teresa, Carl Jung and Abraham Lincoln. Joe and 22 are two lost souls clearly in need of each other.
I was beginning to wonder if the movie was going to spend too much time in our heads but then remembered that Pixar films eventually find their way to our hearts. Sure enough, about 35 minutes in, the film turns into an engaging and funny road trip on Earth involving Joe, 22, and a cat named Mr. Mittens.
Soul is a visual treat, with a rich and colorful detailed cityscape and deeply realized characters. (Scenes in heaven use mostly two-dimensional animation that evoke the mid 1950s.) Pixar not only hired noted Black playwright Kemp Powers to cowrite and codirect the film, but employed a team of cultural consultants to make sure that the Black experience was respectfully depicted.
All of the jazz music is by Jon Batiste (who also plays the piano), assisted ably by Linda May Han Oh on bass, and Marcus Gilmore on drums (Questlove, drummer for The Roots, does the voice of the drummer). Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross from Nine Inch Nails (who have become major film score composers in recent years) wrote the ethereal synthesizer music of the afterlife.
While Jesus Christ and traditional atonement theories are absent (along with most other major religions) and the theology is primarily of the hippie-dippy type, there is no denying that the spiritual takeaway from Soul packs a meaningful and memorable punch. This is bound to be a movie that will mean different things to people at different ages and stages of life, and is the best kind of intergenerational discussion starter.
However, this film isn’t going to make a whole lot of sense to children younger than middle school age. It’s truly a PG-13 movie. My 4-year-old grandson loves all things Pixar and has seen Soul and likes it. He also enjoys Inside/Out (also directed by Pete Docter), but I don’t expect to be talking to him about psychotherapy anytime soon. Fortunately, we can find common ground, laughing together at a mouse hitting a cat on the foot with a wooden hammer and recalling a simpler time when you could send a duck to heaven by merely handing him a stick of exploding dynamite.
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Five halos: A thoughtful film about the meaning of life, with abundant musical and visual beauty.
One pitchfork: For a few rude comments.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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