Pixar’s ‘Soul’ Imagines the ‘Great Before’

For all its glowing pastels, the latest animated feature out of Emeryville has plenty of darkness to go around.

Disney Pixar’s Soul is a bit bleak, and that’s a compliment. It’s sort of about Calvinist predestination, and it’s sort of Buddhist. One of the many things we know how to do well in the USA is mash-up new religions.

We float over the turrets of Cinderella Castle to the soundtrack of a junior-high school band butchering “When You Wish Upon a Star.” New York music teacher Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is leading his hopeless class. The paunch, the brushy mustache, and a tear-drop shaped head all add up to one less than satisfied man. As Joe leaves for home, he bumps into his supervisor. She has what she thinks is excellent news: he’s going to be hired on full-time. 

Joe is in the situation of many artists, who never thought their side job was going to become their tomb. The teacher envisioned himself as a jazz pianist. The news from his boss is all the worse because an old student just gave him a tip on the gig of a lifetime, with the renowned sax player Dorothea Williams (voiced by Angela Bassett).

Dorothea looks Joe over like Queen Elizabeth staring at a courtier. After a successful audition — the noted New Orleans-raised pianist Jon Batiste does the solos — Joe gets the nod. 

Overwhelmed with happiness, the teacher races down a slapstick landscape of careening cars, falling tons of bricks, and a sidewalk littered with banana peels. It was said — by critic James Agee? — that the best way to stage the slippery-peel gag was to have a character carefully step over a banana peel and then plummet down the open manhole they didn’t notice. That’s what happens to Joe… down the manhole and right out of this life. 

Soul has one of the most invigoratingly awful visions of the afterlife this side of Monty Python’s “Christmas in Heaven” sketch. In the immensity of space, chubby little powder-blue souls stand on an ascending conveyer belt. It takes them toward an immense glowing sphere, into which each is absorbed with a sad little bug-zapper sizzle. 

A functionary of the beyond, cranky, dull Terry — (voiced by Rachel House of Hunt for the Wilderpeople) keeps track of the dead on an abacus. This (human) bean counter has mouse ears and a pointed nose. Mickey, is that you? 

Fleeing this treadmill, Joe races to its nether end. There, a helpful creature who looks like a Joan Miro doodad — asymmetrical eyes and a rooster comb for hair — explains: “This isn’t the Great Beyond, this is the Great Before.” 

Many have ground their teeth, listening to some daft grandma explaining that babies are born knowing everything and that they lose this knowledge along the way. But here in this Great Before, babies have their characters assigned in advance. Florette-like badges on their chests are empty. Their petals need to be filled with personalities before they descend to earth. They also need a bit of mentoring before they’re completely ready to assume a life. They need a spark. 

Joe has one chance of postponing the one-way ride on the escalator to oblivion; he’s set up to mentor a bratty spirit named No. 22 (Tina Fey) who has no interest in living on Earth, far less any vocation whatsoever. To her, all is meh. She lives like a hermit away from the gateway to earth. 

Over centuries in this bardo of hers, 22 infuriated all of her assigned mentors, from Abe Lincoln to Mother Teresa. Even 22’s voice is a stance meant to repel — when Joe asks her why an unborn baby should sound like a middle-aged white lady, 22 replies that she chose it for its annoyingness. There’s a couple of quick lines about a girl who Joe likes, who we never see, but Soul’s two main females are intimidating figures. Beside Dorothea, the tough figure is Joe’s mother, voiced by Phylicia Rashad, who expects that of course Joe is going to take a job with security and give up a life of chasing gigs.

It’s easy to name the movies Soul was influenced by — Michael Powell’s A Matter of Life and Death, as well as Kurosawa’s 1952 Ikiru, a favorite of co-director Pete Docter (teamed here with Kemp Power). It’s a little more difficult to get to the chilly point of the film. The cosmology is complicated, and Soul has a happy ending that fits like gills on a puppy. It’s almost as if Takashi Shimura’s doctor in Ikiru came in and gasped that he wasn’t terminal, someone had goofed and switched the X-rays. 

Some of Soul is clear cartoon fun, a body switcheroo. Joe fails to spike his landing back on Earth and is imprisoned in the body of an obese therapy cat, sitting on his hospital bed, while 22 lands in Joe’s body, and having never walked, eaten, or been overwhelmed by sensation before, she’s too inexperienced even to push a button with her splayed slippery fingers. For her, all is a delight, and all is terrifying — she’s quivering like a junkie in a food-stained hospital gown. Her first meal is a slice of stolen pepperoni pizza that Joe the Cat swiped from a counter — dragging the slice, the cat side-eyes one of New York’s famous pizza rats, pulling his stolen treasure in the opposite direction, each pretending not to see the other.  Joe and 22 are tracked by the two dimensional mouse-accountant Terry; Terry can disguise himself as the stick-man figure on a traffic light, or twist himself into the lines on a Mondrian poster on a subway.  

Today, the blockbuster cinema seems to prefer prequel to sequel. Here Pixar, a studio that’s always been the best at what it does, contemplates its own future by looking backwards. This strange land of the not-yet born is scored by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross with the bleeps and boops and hums of 1980s synthesizer music. Soul-balls bounce around, to be suctioned down a conical vortex to Earth. It’s as retro as some of the earliest 3D animation — say the Simpsons’ “Homer3” sequence in the Treehouse of Horror from 1995.

The pastel Great Before, as impersonally cheery as a business-class hotel lobby, isn’t far from a night-desert of purple sand where Lost Souls wander, cyclops-eyed and raging. The desert’s sandstorms are like a once-wondrous effect in early 3D animation, where a figure would disintegrate into a blast of swirling, eddying pixels. There’s also a heaven — the so-called “zone” where all who create the arts float, glowing in bliss, doing, if only for just a few minutes, what they were born to do. 

Soul is not at all depressing, even as it studies disappointment, even as it mulls over the lost, strayed or stolen life. There’s no bathos, even in a glimpse of a sculptured funeral monument showing Joe as he was in life, head in hand, waiting at the laundromat for his washing to be done. 

This is one of Pixar’s deepest and most melancholy animated comedies, and I hope it’ll find an audience. As always, the art direction astonishes, with details as small as the chasing on the brass bell of a saxophone, or the complicated simulacra of the New York cityscapes. A transcendental serenity falls over Joe, who can see his life from a great height, as high as Earth’s orbit. Strange to consider that highlight-reel they say we’ll all watch someday on our deathbeds, even in the form of a 3D cartoon.

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