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Split personality in ‘Soul’ sinks story

Vintage film reel graphic.
Collegian Film Reviews Graphic (Rachel Macias | The Collegian)

It was bound to happen eventually. After draining our tear ducts and demolishing our emotional reserves over the past 2 1/2 decades with films that have steadily crept ever deeper into the dark corners of the ontological abyss, Pixar has finally tackled the big boss of existential queries, the patient zero of philosophical propositions, the Mack Daddy of all metaphysical musings: Where do we go when we die? And what can we do to ensure that we make the most of the precious time we are granted on this mortal coil before our life reaches its final, fateful conclusion?

Where the studio goes from here, who knows? After all, there are few cosmic questions grander in scope or ambition than “What comes after life?” apart from, perhaps, “Did life ever even exist in the first place?” — now there’s a concept! The story of a flawed but funky subatomic particle named Lectra who inadvertently gets transported to a nondimensional void while traveling across orbits to the nucleus of her home atom and must pair up with a lonesome, quirky imaginary number named Onesy in a quest to rediscover her material substance. Tentative title: Matter.

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However, until “Matter” hits theaters, we have “Soul,” a film that has adequately earned its place among Pixar’s most memorable, heart-wrenching offerings but doesn’t quite reach the same level of raw, hide-your-fully-grown-tear-soaked-face-behind-your-extra-large-popcorn-so-the-kids-don’t-see-daddy-crying emotion as its predecessors.

Living in the moment is only valuable insofar as it makes us more aware of the inherent, deep-seated power of our personal relationships and the way they form who we are.”

The story follows aspiring New York City jazz pianist, Joe Gardner, voiced by Jamie Foxx, who, after getting the gig of his dreams, experiences a near-fatal run-in with an open manhole, bringing him face-to-face with that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. No traveler, that is, except for Gardner who, when faced with the Great Beyond, immediately turns tail and hatches an elaborate plan with an up-and-coming soul, 22, voiced by Tina Fey, to reconnect with his earthly body. Their elaborate plan, through the traditionally strange but whimsical rules of the Pixar-verse, leads to Gardner’s body being inhabited by 22 while Gardner himself inhabits the body of a nearby cat.

It’s a fun and whacky setup — one that sets the rest of the film’s course, and the themes it seeks to highlight, on two divergent courses. On one hand, the story is about the conflict between Gardner seeking purpose in life through the pursuit of his passion and 22 discovering the appeal of living through her raw bewilderment at the simple wonders of the world, such as a helicopter seed spinning down from a tree, a hot, tasty slice of pepperoni pizza and a man in a subway station strumming soulfully on a guitar.

On the other hand, however, the movie is about Gardner rediscovering the simple but powerful joys that come through deep, intentional long-term relationships. Throughout his journey with 22, we see him reconnecting with his barber, his mother and a student at his school whom he’s taken on as a mentee. However, whereas it’s the nuanced exploration of precisely these kinds of relationships and their deep, lasting value in which Pixar usually excels — as illustrated through films like “Up” and “Finding Nemo,” most notably — in “Soul” they are brushed over in favor of the simpler, shallower, sappier plea to live in the moment.

But living in the moment is only valuable insofar as it makes us more aware of the inherent, deep-seated power of our personal relationships and the way they form who we are. And while the relationships that define Gardner’s life and soul are explored here, their portrayal is sparse and lacking in any real dimension, and they are presented as just more of the light, simple pleasures of life that 22 is so enamored by.  

Hardly any time is devoted to developing these people as individuals or the complexities of their relationships with Gardner. We are given only a few short scenes that depict Gardner’s relationships with them and a couple of short cutaway shots that show Gardner with his father, who we are led to believe played a pivotal role in sparking Gardner’s passion for jazz music. We see these people who have impacted Gardner’s life, but we hardly spend any time with them. We don’t get to know them. We don’t get to see them change. And we don’t get to see them change Gardner.

Throughout the second act, they are presented as mere accessories to the more central, though less complicated or dramatic, conflict between Gardner and 22. They don’t play an active role in the actual journey that Gardner takes in the film or guide him in any meaningful way to his ultimate realization of his own innate worth, purpose and value. This causes the film to come off as a mere meditation on the simple joys of life — a passable moral for a typical kids movie but one that is lacking in the kind of raw, human conflict that its existential subject matter demands and which its studio has made a name off its mastery of.

Scott Powell can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @scottysseus.

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