Pixar’s soul is dazzling and finally gives us a black trail – but lacks grandeur

Pete Docter is responsible for two of Pixar’s undisputed masterpieces –Monsters Inc. and Upside down (with the first five minutes of To the top) – so it’s reasonable to expect noble things from the animation director, who now acts as the studio’s creative director.

The acclaimed filmmaker certainly doesn’t lack great ambition with his latest, Soul, a saga that explores the great mysteries of existence by venturing into the spiritual realms before and after death. The fact that he doesn’t quite reach the heights of his predecessors has a lot to do with the sheer weirdness of his vanity. Yet as an unconventional and daring attempt to fight the deep in a way that’s both comically and moving, it has a haunting spirit that is hard to resist.

In its form and content, jazz is at the heart of Soul (beginning December 25 on Disney +). In New York City, middle-aged Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) still dreams of being a superstar nightclub pianist, but gets away with a more mundane gig teaching music to college kids.

The offer of a full-time educational job seems sweet to Joe’s worried mother Libba (Phylicia Rashad), and it certainly promises to provide Joe with some stability. Yet when a former classmate (Questlove) offers him a replacement spot to support saxophone legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), Joe jumps at the chance, and in an audition of fluid creativity that Docter faintly portrays. , in-the-zone style, he triumphantly captures the moment.

This happiness is short-lived, however, as on the way home an elated Joe falls into a manhole and quickly wakes up as a shiny blue blobby dude in a fedora, riding a cosmic elevator heading straight for the Great. Beyond.

Panicked, he jumps off this one-way trip to the afterlife and lands squarely in the Great Before, the land in which souls – who all look like identical blue balls of kindness – are given their personalities (insecure, narcissistic, jovial, etc.) by towering, sharp-sounding advisers who are uniformly called Jerry and look like Picasso-esque line art outlines of adults.

Amidst rolling hills and mushroom centers where souls are imbued with their main characteristics, Joe tries to find a way back to Earth while avoiding the authorities, here personified by picky soulmeter Terry (Rachel House), who is looking for the rogue spirit.

Hiding in this spiritual ecosystem, Joe assumes the identity of a deceased Swedish psychologist. For this ruse, he’s tasked with guiding a soul named 22 (Tina Fey) who struggles to complete her soul badge – think of it as a cross between a checklist and a collection of Boy Scout honors – in discovering the “spark” of inspiration that will guide his subsequent life on Earth.

This is no easy task, as 22 is a difficult and capricious soul who can’t seem to find what she is looking for, despite having previously been mentored by Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa, Carl Jung, and Marie Antoinette. As Fey puts it, it’s a fun, ornate sprite that can’t get any satisfaction, and its relationship with Joe is as fun as Doctor’s take on this metaphysical wonderland is striking, combining various animation techniques to evoke a light, airy and floating. embryonic development atmosphere.

Joe and 22’s unlikely partnership is based on a familiar dynamic (he’s reasonable and exasperated; she carefree and stubborn), though their story isn’t quite a routine one. Docter combines traditional elements with some truly extravagant concepts and visuals, the best of which is a pirate ship ruled by Moonwind (Graham Norton), a grand mustache spirit guide whose body counterpart in New York turns out to be the one of the great gags of the film.

About a third of the way Soul, the story takes a sharp turn to the right and turns into an entirely different kind of adventure; without saying too much, let’s just say it becomes something like a variation of Pixar on Horrible friday (seasoned with some The Secret Life of Pets Spice up). Such a dramatic change is invigorating, offering a welcome new avenue for light comedy. More importantly, it amplifies the underlying jubilation of the whole affair, giving it an eclectic unpredictability that feels in tune with Joe’s beloved music.

As always with Pixar, Soul looks phenomenal, from the expressive unreality of the Grand Avant to the photorealistic streets, sidewalks and barber shops of New York City. He also conveys a powerful sense of jazz appeal, which goes hand in hand with his empathetic assumption of a black perspective.

Joe is the studio’s first black protagonist, and the world he navigates in is distinctly black, even though the quest he sets out on is universal in nature. Foxx expresses it with an all-round charm and frustration that is juxtaposed with 22’s more exuberant goallessness, further contributing to the overall diversity – of aesthetic and tone – of the action, which is. interspersed with frenzied racing sequences against time that keep things from getting stuck.

Joe is the studio’s first black protagonist, and the world he navigates in is distinctly black, even though the quest he sets out on is universal in nature.

There is a lot to admire Soul, which is why it is disappointing that it never quite reaches the heights it seeks. Despite its considerable imagination, bounce, and smoothness, Docter’s film is ultimately a lot shallower than it looks (and intended), ending up settling on an authentic, albeit somewhat disappointing, message for s ‘make sure to take the time to appreciate the many wonders of life that surrounds us on a daily basis.

In addition, the intelligence of the Grand Avant is undermined by the fact that Upside down already anthropomorphized intangible facets of human consciousness into creatures of dazzling colors. The result is a company whose new, inventive flights of fancy are often based on ideas and devices we’ve seen before.

Even though it sounds like a minor entry into Pixar’s illustrious canon, there are enough rat-a-tat-tat jokes strewn about to keep everything alive, and his desire to tackle the core issues of reality. and experience through the prism of a children’s film is, like many of its predecessors, both welcome and assured. Plus, in its virtuoso celebration of jazz – the film downright enraptured by Joe’s ivory sparkle alongside his talented musical compatriots –Soul looks like a movie that just might inspire the next Louis Armstrong or Miles Davis, which is way more than what can be said about most of his teenage brothers.

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