ST. LOUIS — There's a certain point in our life where we wonder if opportunity passed us by: the real deal chance that would take us "from the water to the ocean" in one gig vanishing from our timeline. It's a place where disillusionment, regret, and doubt start to take up more head space, and we question everything.
I like to think that Pixar handles all of these uncomfortable and complicated moments in human life with supreme care and grace, always presenting a story that reminds us of a piece of us that was long dead and buried. Adult-oriented animated tales that strike a deeper layer of muscle tissue with parents instead of their kids, Pixar still offers enough eye candy and magical wonder for the younger souls.
For Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), the protagonist of "Soul," the animation studio's Christmas gift to audiences, the dream gig revolved around jazz. More namely, being a piano player in a jazz band. Gardner is the middle school music teacher who reacts sadly to being offered a full-time job, because it represents a death of sorts to his music career. A career that has haunted him for decades, due to the fact his legit ownership of talent has collided so violently with rejection.
You never doubt Foxx for a second in the role of Joe. While the movements are out of the actor's control, you still sense a trust between Joe's moody yet confident walk and his melodic voice. There's a rhythm to Joe's internal madness, a look of complacency who can sit down at a piano and fire off a rich solo performance just to explain the effect of jazz to his students. Foxx's vocal talents, ones that have touched the music industry and once seamlessly mimicked the great Ray Charles, provide a comfort that helps us believe in, and want more from, Joe in a heartbeat. That's movie star swagger mixed with pure talent. Foxx probably saw a scary "what-if" scenario in Gardner.
After all, he's the cool, music knowledge-stuffed history museum who will talk up a storm about one thing at the barbershop, failing to understand what the actual barber's hopes and dreams are. A man so consumed by what he doesn't have will always face the ultimate test in these adventures, and Joe is no different. When bad luck bumps into opportunity, the older teacher has the chance to mentor a young soul (Tina Fey) who doesn't have a path drawn out just yet.
I'll let you enjoy their adventure when the movie plays in your home. Handing out much more detail about the meat and potatoes of this film's plot would do a disservice to Pete Docter and Kemp Powers, the two minds who directed and wrote (along with Mike Jones) this highly enjoyable and poetic journey of a middle-aged man who had convinced himself he had lost at the game of life.
The screenplay should really hit hard in a year where people have been forced to put their lives on the backburner and do what is necessary to survive. There is a Joe Gardner on every corner, connecting light with dark while harboring a desire to be more. People like Joe build their own prison cells, because self-doubt lingers the longest in reality. It's the one that hinders you the most, and I loved the integration of that theme into this particular story.
The sound of "Soul" is fantastic, from the beginning chaotic sound of horns clashing to the melancholy drops of piano that just stab the heart in the third act. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the award-winning team that is more versatile in their sound than any other duo in Hollywood, matched forces here with Jon Batiste, a jazz maestro who provides all the compositions here. It's this signature element that connects the film closer to people in Joe's age range, because it's a celebration of jazz in all its glory, warts and all.
If there's one genre of music that I think can place a musician in a cocoon of endless discovery, it's jazz. The rhythm section hits with the instruments, the ones that only seem to be an extension of the soul who plays them. The writing, music, and voice work made it all punch harder than the normal Pixar joint.
Hat tip to Fey, who always finds the earnest in a role like this. Joe's protégé can snap back at you in a second, is way too cynical for someone her age, but has a hidden compartment of wonder that needs to get let out. Fey finds all of that and hooks it into the audience directly, forming a special bond with Foxx's aging sorta-gracefully "teach." Angela Bassett's work as a legendary jazz singer is just sublime, creating power and sass equally. Graham Norton and Rachel House ("Thor: Ragnarok" fans will know that face) provide solid support as a few people that aid Joe on his adventure.
Where does this film place in Pixar's greatest hits? Hard to tell. Big, grandiose productions like "Soul" may take time to properly marinate. You'll know how you feel about it right away but placing it in a particular echelon of power may be tough. Hard as in hearing a piece of jazz and immediately comparing it to another piece of jazz. Sometimes, it's just great on its own.
Bottom Line: I watched this film twice in a matter of days. Once wasn't enough to properly soak all of it in, because there's a lot happening for an animated film designed for the masses. But after the second time through, it all hit. "Soul" is just another fine example of Pixar's strengths as storytellers for both the young and old crowd. I like to think, once upon a time, a parent got tired of watching kids films solely designed for kids. So, they wrote adult-oriented stories with crayon instead, and found some wonder.
I highly recommend "Soul."