Friday, December 25, 2020

Out of Body: SOUL

Pixar’s Soul is an unusually perceptive family movie about finding meaning in life. It dares to say life’s purpose is not to cultivate a great talent or have the perfect family or find true love. A good life is simpler than that. How rare it is to find any Hollywood movie resisting the  determinism of easy goals and cheap sentiment? This is a movie boldly pushing off into existential waters, directly confronting matters of life and death, and finding a satisfyingly artful and, well, soulful approach to those mysteries. What a neat trick. It starts with a New York City middle-school music teacher (Jamie Foxx) who dreams of being a jazz pianist. Although it’s clear he has the ability to communicate to his students some of the wonder he feels when getting lost in great music, vibing with talent when he’s in the zone, he has bigger dreams. Years of nights and weekends gigging in small clubs, or getting rejected by the bookers and bands thereof, is finally about to pay off when a jazz legend (Angela Bassett) invites him to join her quartet. Too bad, then, that on his way home from their meeting, he dies. Unlike Coco, the cavalcade of color and music and family togetherness that was Pixar’s prior sojourn into the afterlife, this film sends its lead to a cold and sterile place, an enormous glowing white light in total blackness, and a moving sidewalk going up, up, up. Where on Earth the score was full and jazzy with arrangements by Jon Batiste, here it's Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross with swirling New Age synths and spare melodies. Body-less, souls are glowing pale blue blobs led around by geometric modern art profiles. It’s a clear contrast to the bustling, realistically rendered world he’s reluctantly leaving behind. Our lead most desperately wants to escape. You can’t blame him. He falls off the path—through a dazzling variety of squiggly visuals—and lands where souls are trained to be sent down into babies. They must find their spark, a ticket out of this theoretical space and into the world below. This, he thinks, is his ride back to his body.

The stage is set for a typical Pixar plot: hurrying and scurrying around and through barriers and setbacks on the way to a clear goal, while playing loop-de-loops around the logic of a fantasy world. Our lead even gets paired up with a mismatched reluctant buddy, in the adorably aggravating figure of a soul that doesn’t want to be born (Tina Fey). (She’s the source of most of the comedy here, a kind of gentle rat-a-tat patter of silly quips and sparing cutaway gags.) Even so, the most pleasant surprise is to find that the film’s progression isn’t mere formula. Or at least, not completely. Writer-director Pete Docter (Inside Out, Monsters, Inc.) and his co-writer-director, playwright Kemp Powers, instead find through the conceit a means by which to explore the small things that make life worth living. The film tumbles back to earth with a supernatural premise of trying to rekindle a spark in a lost soul. There, resisting a grand thesis, or deadening satire (the afterlife’s bureaucracy has none of the rigorous rules of prior Pixar realms), the movie situates itself lovingly in small interpersonal moments. A teacher guiding a promising pupil. A barbershop bustling with friendship and connection. A mother who just wants the best for her son. A musician who hopes to live up to his potential to connect with a crowd. Because the animation is so warmly textured and fluidly developed, and the writing has such a keen ear for the music of the moments, there’s a remarkable sense of life bustling and bursting. It’s smooth, but takes the usual bops and bumps of this kind of parable; it draws favorable comparison to It’s a Wonderful Life for its otherworldly assist. And yet it doesn’t end with everyone improved supernaturally. It finds quiet contentment in warm memories and simple steps toward a brighter future. Here’s a family film with flights of fancy and eye-popping visual invention that finds its greatest astonishments in the ordinary details of real life.

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