Leave it to Pixar to come up with another afterlife animated feature. First was their hauntingly beautiful Coco in 2017, which dealt with Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), now we have a second movie that again deals with your immortal soul and what happens after you die.
Mixing elements of All Of Me, Coco, Stairway to Heaven, Defending Your Life, and Oh! Heavenly Dog, we switch locations from Mexico to NYC and finds middle school music teacher, Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), facing a crisis in his life. Although he’s just been made a full-time teacher, which gets him a steady salary, pension, and pleases his seamstress mom (Phylicia Rashad) to no end, Joe’s first, best love is playing jazz. And he gets an incredible chance to play with an idol of his, respected sax player, Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) at her jazz club, The Half Note.
BUT! Joe falls through an open, unmarked manhole (I guess they’re everywhere?) and boom! His soul gets separated from his body, which is now languishing in a hospital room. Still wearing his glasses and trilby hat, his puffy white soul travels up a gigantic stairway to the Great Beyond, but Joe doesn’t want to go. He’s got more in life to do! Escaping the stairway, he finds his way to the Great Before, a What Dreams May Come landscape run by a bunch of soul counselors… all called Jerry. Here, new souls develop personalities, quirks, and traits before being sent off to Earth below.
However, they’re all lacking one thing; their one special and unique “spark” of individuality. Joe, in order to get back into his body again, is assigned to counsel 22 (Tina Fey), a cynical, sarcastic lost soul with no hope of ever finding her purpose. 22 finds Joe intriguing and, locating a loophole in the ‘In-The-Zone’ zone, gets their souls back to Earth but… uh-oh! 22 accidentally enters Joe’s body, while Joe’s soul gets into a therapy cat! Needless to say, hijinks ensue. Joe is running around in NYC (with 22’s inner voice) and Joe is talking through the cat, trying to figure out how to get their souls switched around.
Joe and 22 has numerous adventures with haircuts, eating pizza, getting a new suit, reconciling with Joe’s mom over his career, and all the while 22 experiencing this thing called “life” through Joe’s body. But while they’re trying to get a soul-switcheroo done and learning their own life-lessons in the process, the Great Before soul counselors want them both back! In the end, we can all take a page from Joe’s final decision. Written by newbie Mike Jones, Kemp Powers (One Night In Miami, Star Trek: Discovery episodes), and director Pete Docter (Inside Out, Monsters, Inc), this movie has so much going for it, despite all the plot holes and unanswered questions that surround it.
Once you open the door to the concept of the afterlife, souls, existentialism, Astra-projection, life & death, and fulfilling ones own destiny, there are SO many rabbits holes to go down. But Docter, Jones, and Powers give this kid-friendly version of the here-after a bizarre, yet cutesy look with tiny, underdeveloped souls, a land of souls trapped in limbo because of low self-esteem, and other heavy concepts. It can get real confusing with all the precepts, and while the kids may not ‘get it’, adults will see alot of themselves in Joe; wanting SO much in life, but never achieving their goal. Yeah, I could certainly feel for this guy.
And let’s talk about the other stuff that makes this movie so wonderful. The jazzy musical score is excellent and watching Joe passionately playing piano is a highlight. Then you have the Pixar wild, irreverent, fast-paced humor thrown in with many sight gags (pizza rat? LOL!!) and their emotional tug at your heart for good measure. The choice vocal talents are all there, not to mention the exquisite photo-realistic CGI that is awesome. With a movie of this complexity and full of interesting concepts of time, space, and souls, I just wish the blanks were filled in more. I was especially upset at the ending not knowing the future of 22. What happened to her?? A sequel, perhaps?
Streaming exclusively on Disney +
Stairway To Heaven (1946) (aka A Matter of Life and Death)
Whether you saw this in the U.S. or the U.K. (depending on which title), this brilliant movie boasts a terrific cast, a great script, and impressive SPFX for its time. And you have to bow to the writing/directing/producing team of Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger for churning out such a masterful film.
It’s smack-dab in the middle of WW2 and RAF pilot (and novice poet) Peter Carter (David Niven) is about to die. His burning, crippled plane is slowly plummeting to the ground, he’s got no parachute, but he’s got enough time to strike up a conversation over the radio with an American radio operator in England. Her name is June (Kim Hunter) and the two somehow fall in love in the five minutes that he has left before Peter leaps from his plane to his certain doom. BUT! There’s been a mistake! The angelic and flamboyant French fop, Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), missed taking his soul in the thick British fog! Oopsie! Waking up on some unknown beach, Peter is not only miraculously alive, but also finds June in just a few minutes!
But as Peter and June fall madly in love with each other, Heaven (although it’s never called that) wants their mistake fixed, and sends Conductor 71 back to fetch Peter. However, Peter refuses to go and demands an appeal! His ‘conversation with a celestial being’ doesn’t go unnoticed as June calls her friend, Dr. Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey), for help. Dr. Reeves, who’s like a detective of medical doctors, is fascinated with Peter’s wild and vivid stories of the “Other World”. Although Frank agrees with everything Peter says, he believes that Peter is also suffering from a brain injury… and one that MUST be operated on!
After Peter’s heavenly appeal is granted, he is given three days to come up with a defense counsel, but he can’t think of anybody, since the prosecutor is the nasty Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey), an American Revolutionary who hates the British. Luckily (and as a deus ex machina would have it), Dr. Reeves suddenly and unexpectedly dies, just in time to be Peter’s attorney in the afterlife. And as Reeves and Farlan argue their case to a judge and a massive court the size of a galaxy, Peter is on the operating table. Will Peter be allowed to live? Will true love prevail? And check out the huge ‘stairway to Heaven’ set that features a real giant moving escalator! Wicked cool!
This movie, a favorite of both actor Michael Sheen (Prodigal Son) and author J.K. Rowling, is really a well-crafted film. Besides having a damn fine script that plays out like a Broadway stage show, the directors played with the cinematography as well. When you’re in “Heaven”, it’s in black & white, but as you come back to Earth, it slowly slips into Technicolor. In fact, Conductor 71 even mentions this fact! And being a British import, it has a unique style to it that makes it a cut above the U.S. offerings.
David Niven, with his signature pencil-thin mustache, is in his prime and dashingly handsome, making the movie his from the get-go. Kim Hunter, who be later be known for all her Planet of the Apes roles, is wonderful. I really think that Livesey, with his whip-smart delivery, could have played Sherlock Holmes at some point, and Massey (all steel cheekbones and thousand-yard death stare) is just amazing. For your comic relief, you gotta hand it to Goring for his deliciously comical French fop angelic messenger. He steals every scene he’s in.