Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover back in May, when ruminating on our family’s adoption process for new streaming services:
Our family prides itself on not being early adopters of new technology or services. We prefer to let upstart projects and products get up and running, figure out their processes, work out their bugs, set a price point that’s worth the venture, and build up a reputation, preferably a favorable one. Then we might give them the time of day. Maybe. Sometimes. Streaming services are subject to the same vetting procedure. The internet’s Baby Yoda obsession notwithstanding, we have yet to pull the trigger on Disney+…
All that changed Christmas evening. Everyone does the post-Christmas thing where they wait until all gift-giving is finished, then buy themselves a little something to compensate for any oversights or disappointments, right? Mine was springing for an upgrade to our existing Hulu With Five Tedious Commercials Repeated Ad Nauseum subscription. Now we can access the wonder and whimsy of Disney+. One day in the future I can at long last stop worrying about pervasive spoilers for The Mandalorian.
And what better way to test-drive our new channel than with the latest Pixar production? Soul was among the hundreds of major releases relegated to the once-ignominious fate of a direct-to-video release thanks to pandemic pandemonium. Technically it’s cheaper for viewers this way who have the wherewithal to let the fees sink into the morass of their monthly credit card charges, but on the downside, the wildly inventive score by the Oscar-winning duo of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross made me wish I could’ve seen this in a theater and immersed myself in the splendor of its music, apropos of the film’s own themes. Among other benefits, it might’ve better distracted me from a few things that bugged me as the film played on.
Academy Award Winner Jamie Foxx (Ray) is Joe Gardner and his life is in a deep funk. He plays a mean jazz piano, but to make ends meet he works part-time as a music teacher to schoolkids who need all the help they can get. Their rendition of the Walt Disney Studios title card theme is a painfully accurate recreation of my three years wasted as a junior high bass clarinetist. Fortune smiles upon Joe one day when an appreciative former student (Questlove from the Roots) scores him a gig with the Dorothea Williams (the Angela Bassett), a renowned singer who’s like a slightly less furious Ma Rainey. Joe earns one night in her backup band that could change his life forever — propel him into the big leagues, make his dreams come true, and give him the star power to abandon those pesky and probably untalented students forever. Let them go study playwriting with Radha Blank or whatever. Soon they won’t be his problem and everything will be awesome.
Then Joe falls in a hole and dies. The End.
And here you thought Up was so efficiently cruel, right?
But no! Joe is only mostly dead. A wacky accident on the escalator to the Great Beyond instead dumps his soul into the Great Before. Here in the latest benignly pluralistic metaphysical construct from Inside Out co-writer/director Pete Docter (sharing writer/director credits with Star Trek: Discovery staffer Kemp Powers, plus additional co-writer Mike Jones), souls don’t merely erupt from nothingness whenever babies are born. First they’re tiny humanoid blobs being shepherded around the Great Before by two-dimensional overseers, all of whom are named Jerry, in some kind of joke I look forward to getting someday. Over time each blob has its character traits assigned at the affable yet capricious whims of the Jerries.
Then, one last ingredient: they have to discover their “spark” — either by observing humans from afar and seeing what speaks to them; by wandering a sprawling collection of All The Things and seeing what catches their attention; or by drawing inspiration from mentors who were once Very Important People in the land of the living, doing a stint in the Great Before as tutors for pre-kids before heading off to the Great Beyond. Each soul-blob tracks its progress using a merit badge that’s like a Dungeons & Dragons character sheet composed entirely in emojis. Once it’s full, then they fly onward to Earth and life in that order. There is a lot of setup before the plot can lurch forward, though the film studiously avoids showing us at exactly what point the soul-blob is tethered to its host baby/fetus/embryo/zygote.
Joe lands in the middle of all this and is mistaken for a new tutor, because why else would he be there since no mistakes are made in the beforelife. He’s soon paired with a pupil, but the worst one possible: among the hundreds of billions of numbered baby-blobby-souly-thingies, he’s up against number 22 (Tina Fey), who’s been loitering in the Great Before for thousands of years because that whole “spark” thing eludes it. 22 is no cherubic blank slate — apparently it was carelessly assigned the traits of “stubborn”, “mischievous”, and “apathetic” and inexplicably given free rein to wander at will without commitment, obligation, or discipline. Not even so much as a threat to be sent straight to Purgatory without manna.
Joe naively thinks he can succeed where Mother Teresa, President Lincoln, and countless others have failed with 22. Inevitably the mismatched duo has to go to Earth because that’s where all the best animated comedy settings and setups are. The blobbos technically can’t go to Earth unless their preferences are set, but this one blobbo has to go to Earth to set theirs in order to be allowed to go to Earth. Yes, the crux of this film is very much…a Catch-22.
Along the way and through many a mess on many levels, Joe and 22 take turns learning important lessons such as:
- Life Is Beautiful
- There’s a Lot of Beauty in Ordinary Things
- Our “spark” and our purpose may not be the same thing
- Sure, we hear Heaven is cool, but look at all this awesome stuff right here on Earth!
- Sometimes what we love to do isn’t what we’re meant to do
- Sometimes what we stumble into doing is more fulfilling than what we thought we wanted to do
- Sometimes we’re already doing what we’re meant to do and don’t know it because we’re too busy wanting what we don’t have even though getting what we want may just leave us wanting still more
…and so on. Many folks of a certain age will recognize Joe’s personal quandary, especially those among us toiling away the days in ways we never would’ve imagined because we were encouraged to imagine bigger and cooler and comfier. We can see a little of ourselves in a directionless youngster who’s liable to choose poorly and wander onto one of those myriad non-glamorous roads that no one ever takes on purpose. We’d love to see them do better. Mostly we want to see them do something.
I’m not sure how a younger audience might take all of this. They might be inspired to think more deeply about what they really want do with their lives and dare to dream, but if Plan A is a flop, then…well, learn to cope with what happens instead, I suppose. As Julia Ormond once griped in an episode of Mad Men, “Not every little girl gets to do what they want. The world cannot support that many ballerinas.” In the meantime, the world and all its quotidian beauties will still be there to captivate and mesmerize you whether you’re on or off the clock.
Besides, someone has to do the smaller, less flashy jobs. Plenty of folks are happy in those roles. A wonderfully detailed scene in a Black barbership hammers that point home, a counterpoint to Joe’s school, whose dreariness is arguably his own interpretation. This line of thought was also the denouement of Monsters University, which ends with Mike and Sully bollixing their college experience and finding joy in their eventual workaday careers. That touch of realism is why I’ve always liked Monsters U more than the first one.
It was also among the reasons that Soul nearly lost me. The Pixar storytelling approach feels more mechanical than usual, the seams between the separate components showing as well as the resemblances to other well-oiled machines that used parts from the same assembly line. Besides Monsters U‘s paean to the proletariat and the cutesy conceptualizations of Inside Out, there’s also the wrong-body hi-jinks of Brave that inject even more wackiness into the narrative than the trailers promised, probably a sop to younger viewers who need a break from the heavy life lessons and the constant chatter about “spark” that should be paying royalties to Marie Kondo. The minority among us who watched Cars 3 (which I promise is better than the second one) may also recognize Joe undergoing the exact same arc that Lightning McQueen did, in which proficiency in a dearly cherished activity must eventually be relinquished as Our Hero realizes that the best thing he can do in the next phase of his life is to pass on his skill set to his successor. Both Soul and Cars 3 strongly believe we need more teachers, better teachers, teachers who love what they could once do and can teach others why it should be loved. They’re school recruitment videos. High-quality ones, but still.
As with all the best Pixar films, Soul inevitably left me a blubbering mess. With Jamie Foxx firmly at the wheel, Joe’s fervor is palpable as he leads 22 through a parade of Good Stuff, whether it’s jazz or New York pizza or helicopter seeds spiraling in the wind. His dejection at being consigned to non-fun grownup life is all too real, as is his desperation when he thinks he’s about to lose it all. Eventually there’s a tradeoff, a possible sacrifice, and music swelling in exactly the right volumes and keys, again with that perfectly calibrated Pixar precision but with some offbeat change-ups courtesy of Reznor and Ross. Some adults may also appreciate the Final Thoughts from Angela Bassett, who imparts words of wisdom upon Joe about sky-high expectations versus unexamined mundanity.
It would’ve been even cooler if Joe had remained the main character all throughout. He has lessons to learn, but 22 is smaller and cuter and more merchandisable and has even more lessons to learn even though it’s thousands of years older than he is. After so many millennia, by now 22 should be Adult Yoda in Baby Yoda’s body. Additional goodwill is thrown out the window in the final thirty seconds when the film veers whiplash-like toward a mediocre Hail Mary that feels like Pixar took the easy way out to placate some whiny, unimaginative focus group who didn’t like where it was going because they were tired of ugly-crying and demanded a ray of hollow sunshine right now. Then it’s capped off with a whopping cliche of a final line lifted verbatim from infinite inspirational blogs, Instagram self-help accounts, and Max Lucado desk calendars.
Maybe younger kids who haven’t heard that line often enough will find it a revelation and will start copying-and-pasting it onto sunset photos and sharing them on Facebook in hopes of passing on this wisdom to someone even younger than they are. It’s not often you see kids learning simple life lessons from a film that started off with an adult suffering their midlife crisis.
Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Beyond those listed above: an instantly recognizable Phylicia Rashad (The Cosby Show, Creed) is Joe’s mother who is of course disappointed in his musical aspirations. Talk show host Graham Norton is a blissful spirit facilitating Joe’s transit between the Great Before and the Here-‘n’-Now, who also loves his corporeal day job. Voices for the Jerries include Alice Braga (Predators, The New Mutants), Richard Ayoade (Zero from The Mandalorian), and Wes Studi (Mystery Men).
Donnell Rawlings (The Wire) is a barber who’s happy in his work. Daveed Diggs (Hamilton) has a few key scenes as a barbershop client who’s ready to spar. Sakina Jaffrey (Timeless, Sleepy Hollow) has too few scenes as an ER doctor.
In a recent interview with Docter, fans were assured Pixar’s main man John Ratzenberger is in here somewhere, but as of this writing his role remains an uncredited Easter egg yet to be detected for certain. Updates as they occur.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there is indeed a treat after the Soul end credits, but it’s more of a moment than a complete scene. In the spirit of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Deadpool, Terry the Great Beyond accountant (Rachel House from Moana) pops up and yells at the audience, “Oi! Movie’s over! Go home!” Terry is once again two steps behind and doesn’t notice we already are.