Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Pete Docter is one of the filmmakers who works for Pixar Animation that has gotten a lot of acclaim. He’s been nominated eight times for the Academy Award. He won twice in the category of Best Animated Feature for Up (2009) and Inside Out (2015). He was nominated four times in the category of Best Writing. The latter, Best Writing nominations were for Inside Out and Up. His first two writing nominations were for Toy Story (1995) and Wall-E (2008). Those four films are considered top tier in terms of ranking Pixar’s films. Docter has become such that when he works on a film either through writing or directing, that film gets entered in Pixar’s top tier. That’s usually the case for him until now. While there is a lot of great craft and great animation on display here, it doesn’t soar and then land with as much of an emotional punch as his previous films did or previous Disney-Pixar films did.
In my review for Onward (2020), which is the Pixar film released theatrically earlier this year, just prior to the coronavirus pandemic shutting down cinemas, I pointed out the problem that Pixar’s films have been conforming to a kind of formula, a formula for plot, premise and themes. The more Pixar films one sees, the more the formula becomes obvious. It makes subsequent films from that studio feel derivative and not as exciting. For some, the enjoyment will come from whether or not one thinks Pixar executed its formula well. To me, that formula is yielding diminishing returns. Coming after Onward, this film is victim to that. It feels less than Onward, although some might give this film more credit because it’s Pixar’s first film that features an African-American in the lead role and features a predominantly African-American cast.
Jamie Foxx (Dreamgirls and Ray) stars as the voice of Joe Gardner, a music teacher in New York. His students for the most part have no interest in music, particularly the Jazz music he’s trying to impart. He’s a bit of a failed Jazz musician that always aspired to be apart of a band and perform live in Jazz clubs or even bigger venues, perhaps even be a popular recording artist. It’s not exactly clear what he’s been doing to further that dream. Ostensibly, he hasn’t been doing anything beyond teaching students. It’s actually through a former student that he’s offered a gig with a Jazz quartet at the Half Note, which is a Jazz club. When he auditions, he’s proven to be a great piano player, so he lands the gig.
Unfortunately, on his way back home, he falls through an open sewer manhole. At that point, he seemingly dies. Yet, later his body is found at a hospital. His body isn’t in a morgue, so he can’t be totally dead. It’s not clear if death isn’t a physical process or a process dictated by where Joe goes. Anyhow, his spirit, which looks like a light-blue blob, begins to rise through a black void on a transparent escalator. His spirit is rising toward a giant white light, which presumably is the afterlife, most presumably Heaven, though it’s not clear if there is a distinction in that afterlife. It’s supposed that Joe won’t be totally dead until he enters this giant white light, later called “The Great Beyond.” He realizes this and runs from it. He’s able to escape somehow and make it to what’s called “The Great Before,” which is where spirits are created and molded.
Tina Fey (30 Rock and Saturday Night Live) co-stars as 22. She’s a spirit in the Great Before. Each spirit is given a number prior to being sent to Earth and hers is 22. I refer to her in the feminine because that’s what her voice suggests, even though the spirit is meant to be non-gendered or non-binary entity. Having an actor who actually is non-binary or maybe transgendered would have been more appropriate and possibly more interesting. Yet, 22 is apparently existed here for a long time. The reason that she hasn’t gone to Earth and inhabited a body is because she hasn’t found her spark. A spark is some kind of inspiration or motivation to live or be alive. For some reason, 22 has never found such a spark. Nothing about Earth seems to interest her.
It feels weirdly contrived that each spirit is basically what the personality of the person will be and that personality is constructed out of seven different traits represented through seven, small circles on the chest of the spirit. Those seven traits or circles get grafted onto the spirit after the spirit is put through some kind of soft, squiggly machine. This suggests a definitive answer to the nature-versus-nurture debate. However, the last trait aka the “spark” has to be gained through a mentor who is basically a human who has died and is waiting here before going to the Great Beyond. Of course, this begs the question that if we were going by Christian theology, then who were the so-called mentors for Adam and Eve?
The whole process for getting a spark in order to go to Earth feels so preposterous and specifically contrived, so that this adventure for both Joe and 22 can be had in order to teach them the value of just being alive. It’s the thematic equivalent of telling someone to “stop and smell the roses,” or in this case, stop and smell the random leaf that falls off a tree or a half-drunken soda one might find underneath the seat of a subway car. Obviously, I understand what the film is trying to convey, but I’m not sure that dried-up leaves off trees or half-eaten food are the best ways to do so.
The film also seems to posit a problem for Joe that I’m not convinced he has. Yes, it’s clear that 22 doesn’t have a spark for life, but the film suggests that Joe doesn’t have a spark either. Or, it suggests that the spark that he thought he had, which was his passion for music, wasn’t his spark. It suggests that his spark was the sum total of his experiences whether it’s with family members, random students or just by himself enjoying things that he encounters. Yet, I don’t think the film establishes well enough that his ignorance of that spark is some kind of real issue and the montage at the end would seem to contradict his ignorance.
I suppose the montage is meant to mirror the montage toward the end of Up where the elderly protagonist realizes what he was searching for was something he already had. But there was more of a character arc there. The elderly character had to change his ways, in effect. I don’t see what Joe has to really change about himself here. This film also implies that Joe’s pursuit of music is somehow unsatisfying, which I’m not sure why that would be. Even though music apparently takes him into this blue zone, which represents a transcendental state of spiritual bliss, somehow getting paid to play music professionally isn’t satisfying for him. It’s a bit confusing. In a lot of ways, it’s the antithesis to Coco (2017), which is a previous Pixar film about an aspiring musician who goes to the afterlife and it’s headed with a predominant cast of people of color.
Rated PG for some language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 46 mins.
Available on Disney +.