(2020) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Questlove, Angela Bassett, Cora Champommier, Margo Hall, Daveed Diggs, Rhodessa Jones, Wes Studi, Sakina Jaffrey, Fortune Feimster, June Squibb, John Ratzenberger, Peggy Flood. Directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers
Since its inception, Pixar has consistently turned out some of the most thought-provoking and imaginative animated features in history, winning multiple Oscars and changing the game forever. Once known for being one of the original computer-generated animation studios, they have completely redefined storytelling in the animated medium.
Not all of their films have been home runs, of course – no studio that has been around for nearly 30 years can be expected to be perfect every time out, but they have very few movies in their library that aren’t at least entertaining at worst and thought-provoking. Whether it is on the nature of toys and their relationship with our memories, to the emotions and how all of them are important to who we are, and including stories about a rat who longs to be a famous French chef and anthropomorphic cars, Pixar has something for everybody. Therefore, it is really saying something when I lead off a review of one of their pictures by saying it might be the best they’ve ever made.
Joe Gardner (Foxx) wants to be a jazz pianist with all his heart and soul. He has never gotten the big break he needs, though, and so has had to make ends meet by teaching music at a New York City high school. His mother (Rashad) wants him to give up on his dreams and deal with the reality that he needs to earn a living, and it looks like he might be doing that as his part-time gig at the school is aout to be turned full-time and permanent, complete with benefits and a pension, which is exactly what his mom wants for him.
But fate isn’t done with Joe. He gets and nails an audition with legendary saxophone player Dorothea Williams (Bassett). Finally, the big break he’s been praying for. As he makes an excited call home, he doesn’t notice the manhole cover that is ide open and falls in.
He hovers between life and death and his soul heads for the great beyond, but before he can head to his final destination, incensed at the thought of dying before he can make it, which he considers to be his destiny, he escapes the conveyer belt taking him to the great light and ends up in the great before – where souls go before they are born to adqure the personality traits that will stick with them after birth. Joe is given the stubborn soul-let 22 (Fey) to mentor. She is missing the spark that will fill out her check boxes and send her to Earth to become a person. The trouble is, 22 doesn’t want to leave. And Joe doesn’t want to stay – he needs to get back into his body before he misses the gig that he has been waiting his whole life to play.
As you can see, there are some pretty heavy concepts going on here. How do we become who we are? What happens to us when we die? Not exactly typical subjects for a kid flick, but Pixar regular Pete Docter (along with Kemp Powers, who wrote the acclaimed One Night in Miami which is just about to be released on Amazon Prime as I write this) makes it not only thought-provoking, but fun as well. In the Great Before, there are beings all named Jerry (voiced, by among others, by Rachel House, Alice Braga and Richard Ayoade) that resemble concept drawings in Picasso’s sketchbook; one of the mentors there calls human beings “meat suits.”
This is a gorgeously rendered film, as nearly all Pixar films are. The New York City here is so real you can almost smell the garbage; a rat hauls away a slice of pizza with the grease glistening on the pepperoni. It’s the details that make the film; the jazz tunes are written by John Batiste whose performance on the keyboard was filmed so that the animators could match Joe’s fingering to that of Batiste exactly.
Speaking of music, the score – by Oscar-winning duo Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – is lustrous and mind-bending, in my opinion one of the best scores ever to grace an animated feature. The movie also celebrates African-American culture without pandering, which Hollywood productions sometimes do.
Foxx, an Oscar winner himself, is simply outstanding as Joe. His performance is full of pathos and humor as he gives Joe a unique personality; stubborn and at the same time, giving. You root for Joe without thinking he’s too good to be true; there are definitely warts there, but Foxx makes him all too relatable. Perhaps his experience bringing Ray Charles to the screen stood him in good stead here. In any case, it should rank among Foxx’s best performances ever, which is something to crow about.
In a year that has tested all of us, this is a lovely reward for making it this far. It is the kind of movie that we can watch together as a family, whether we are actual relations or not. It is a movie that explores what it is to be human, and what it is to be more than human – to explore the nature of what a soul is. It’s a brilliant work and one of the year’s best fims, if not THE best.
REASONS TO SEE: Wildly inventive and one of Pixar’s all-time best. The score is the best ever for an animated feature. Foxx is absolutely awesome. Doesn’t overdo the sentimentality. Takes on some very difficult subjects without talking down.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a bit of a stretch.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Pixar film to feature an African-American as the lead character.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Disney Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews; Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISONSHOPPING: Inside Out
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Queer Japan