Film Reviews

Film Review: Soul @ Disney+

In Disney and Pixar’s “Soul,” Joe Gardner (voice of Jamie Foxx), a middle-school band teacher in New York City, makes one small misstep and ends up in The Great Before, a fantastical place where new souls get their personalities, quirks and interests before they go to Earth. There, he meets Terry (voice of Rachel House), who is charged with the singular duty of keeping track of the entrants to The Great Beyond. Determined to return to his life, Joe teams up with a precocious soul, 22 (voice of Tina Fey) to show her what’s great about living. Directed by Academy Award® winner Pete Docter, co-directed by Kemp Powers and produced by Academy Award® nominee Dana Murray, p.g.a., “Soul” will debut exclusively on Disney+ (where Disney+ is available) on December 25, 2020. ©2020 Disney/Pixar. All rights reserved.
Alex Watkin

Soul is Pixar’s latest animated film from director-cowriter Pete Doctor. Doctor is the mind behind some of Pixar’s most challenging and highly-regarded films (Monsters Inc, Up and Inside Out). Like Inside Out, Soul attempts to physically represent abstract ideas.

It constructs a fantasy for what happens to us after death and before we are born, which are respectively titled The Great Beyond and The Great Before. At times, Soul is Pixar’s most sophisticated film. But, it fails to fully capitalise on its potential due to misguided attempts to appease younger viewers…

Surprisingly, the metaphysical element of the story feels oddly superfluous. These sections are momentarily visually stimulating but they never fully justify themselves.  Undoubtedly, the film is at its best when in the real world taking itself more seriously. The film’s ending, which feels arbitrarily stitched on, cements the metaphysical element feeling strangely unnecessary to tell this story.

It’s widely accepted that mainstream audiences are rarely willing to suspend their disbelief for metaphysical cinema, without some level of mediation. For example, Christopher Nolan grounds Inception in science-fiction technology. Inside Out and Soul supposedly achieve mainstream acceptance by being animated ‘cartoons’. Unlike Inside Out, as aforementioned, Soul’s metaphysical elements don’t exactly feel necessary. And so, to some degree this brings into question the film’s justification for being animated.

Pixar’s films have always been primarily aimed at children, but made with a level of sophistication so adults can appreciate them without turning their brains off. In certain cases, their films even achieve the accolade of genuinely being applicable for all-ages.

It’s completely different to all of Pixar’s other films; it feels like a premise that is most relevant for the adults in the audience

Soul’s story concerns Joe (Jaimee Fox), a middle-aged band teacher who is still clutching to a dream of being a ‘real’ jazz musician. Through the film he has to grapple with his existence and purpose on an existential level. This is a brilliant premise, one that should transpire as a nuanced POV character study within a contemporary metropolitan context. But, it’s also interesting as it’s completely different to all of Pixar’s other films; it feels like a premise that is most relevant for the adults in the audience.

Ignoring the conceptual flaws surrounding Soul being animated, the film’s animation is still problematic. Doctor directs the animation according to Pixar’s normal style. At times, this veers towards lazy attempts to superficially keep less perceptive children from getting bored. No part of this story lends itself to obligatory cute asides or hyperactive characters with comical personalities. To say Soul’s tone is jerky and a bit of a mess would be an understatement.

Tonal inappropriateness most unfortunately impacts the metaphysical portions of the film. Through excessive dialogue and break-neck cutting, Doctor seems trepidatious to trust the metaphysical visuals. Subsequently, they are devoid of any weight and repercussions.

Joe is a character with tunnel vision. So, perhaps, the rapid pacing can be justified beyond it being the standard for big-budget animated features. But within the Great Beyond and The Great Before, Joe’s impatience and lack of awareness is unnaturally heightened to nauseating levels. Therefore, it definitely feels like there is a conscious attempt to ensure everyone in the audience remains nicely spoon-fed during these sections. A risk-free strategy to avoid the scary prospect of pretentious ambiguity.

The rest of the film is more successful, but at times, like a lot of Pixar, Soul borders on generic sentimentality. There is often a sense of engineered emotional manipulation, rather than the film manifesting organically. These moments stick out like a sore thumb in Soul and compound the film’s tonal inconsistency.

It synergises visuals and music to result in emotional monumentality

However, Soul certainly has moments of cinematic brilliance. There is a particular section at the end of the second act that is the highlight of the film. It is a small personal moment, which fully utilises the cinematic medium. It synergises visuals and music to result in emotional monumentality.  There are certainly more moments of similarly quality. They provide a scintillating taste of the film Soul feels like it wants to be.  

Soul is a reminder that mainstream western animation still hasn’t fully escaped the caveat of being first and foremost for children. The film to a certain degree addresses this issue, but it is held back by the suppositions of this longstanding falsehood.

Soul overall is a positive experience and its ambition is to be admired. Doctor is pushing Pixar’s boundaries by creating a story that feels targeted at adults. In execution, it becomes too simplified and at times overly childish. Hopefully, Pixar will be able to build on Soul and create a truly great piece of ‘adult’ animation, which remains age-appropriate for all.

Alex Watkin

Featured image courtesy of Budiey via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

In article images courtesy of @pixarsoul via Instagram. No changes were made to these images.

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