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(The prompt for Day 1 of NaPoWriMo was to write something perspective-challenging based on a surreal jazz music video. I thought that the jazz and a change of perspective would apply well to Pixar’s latest film.)

Would the world appear different behind different eyes?
Before or behind them – which matters the most?
How much of his life can a man criticize
Before it’s reduced by his deep-rooted roast?

I’d hate to have nothing to show for my time,
My effort, my busyness spent every day.
If mountain views aren’t at the end of the climb,
Why struggle and strive to reach only half-way?

If I could fulfill all the hopes I once dreamed,
If I could be him or be her or do that,
Perhaps the time wasted could still be redeemed,
A medal to earn in life’s mortal combat.

How foolish, however, to think that my worth
Depends on a goal that can move as I near it!
How mindless to plan upon riches on earth,
No thought for what nurtures my soul and your spirit.

The climb can be tedious staring ahead,
A rock wall in front and a far distant peak,
But spare a glance round at the background instead
And find where you never considered to seek.

MPA rating:  PG

Thanks to a certain virus and the advent of Disney+, I was thankfully able to watch Pixar’s latest film from the comfort of my couch right at the tail end of 2020, though I would have gladly gone to a theater for it if one had been open. With Pixar’s diminishing creative trend over the last decade, I wasn’t sure where Soul would land among their undeniable classics and good-not-great outings, but I was thrilled to join the general consensus in deeming it the former.

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The first Pixar film with an African-American protagonist, Soul follows pianist and middle school music teacher Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) as he manages to earn the jazz gig of his dreams and then promptly die, which isn’t a spoiler strangely enough. Appearing as a blue blob on his way to the Great Beyond, he escapes into an in-between realm where unborn souls are prepared before going to earth. He is paired with an uncooperative soul called 22 (Tina Fey), with whom he questions the meaning of his life and existence.

That last bit may sound overly heavy for a “kids movie,” and indeed Soul doesn’t seem designed for kids, with its middle-aged main character and existential questions of life and death. Director Pete Docter has explored weighty concepts before in Up and Inside Out, but other elements of those films seem clearly geared for a young audience. More than any other Pixar film, Soul seems especially mature, not in content, but in theme, while still retaining a likable sense of humor, and I personally love and admire animated films that can pull off such a tonal balance successfully.

The plot itself stays unpredictable and throws in some thought-provoking concepts without much time to consider all their implications, later utilizing them in surprising ways, much like Inside Out did. The animation is yet more evidence of how Pixar is leaps and bounds ahead of its CGI competition, full of textured backgrounds, hyper-realistic lighting, and amazing fluidity, such as the shifting forms of the charming Picassoesque entities named Jerry in the “Great Before.” And then there’s the music, both snappy instrumental jazz and a gorgeous score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which is almost a character in itself as Joe’s creative passion.

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I can’t say Soul is perfect, since it does have some unaddressed plot holes and oddly stops short of explicitly affirming Joe’s job as a teacher, which I think would have been a nice touch similar to Mr. Holland’s Opus. Nevertheless, Pixar excels in its dramatic gut punches, and Soul absolutely delivers those moments, from relatable reconciliations to noble sacrifice, and succeeds in conveying a life-affirming message that doesn’t come off as trite or recycled. Since it hasn’t happened for a Pixar film in a decade, I was really hoping that Soul would snag a Best Picture nomination, but alas, that didn’t happen (though it was nominated for Best Animated Feature, Score, and Sound). While I would have liked perhaps a more religious view of the afterlife, Soul remains general and accessible enough in its spirituality to appeal to all audiences, and its message of valuing life’s little moments ultimately meant a lot to me.

Best line: (musician Dorothea Williams, to Joe) “I heard this story about a fish. He swims up to this older fish and says, ‘I’m trying to find this thing they call the ocean.’ ‘The ocean?’ says the older fish. ‘That’s what you’re in right now.’ ‘This?’ says the young fish. ‘This is water. What I want is the ocean.’”

Rank:  List-Worthy

© 2021 S.G. Liput
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