Pixar’s films never feel as though they’re talking down to their audiences, presenting stunning animation as well as stories free of most fluff. There are times where it seems as though they’re making these films more for the adults than the kids. This is certainly the case with Soul, a film that asks the more mysterious questions of what happens when we die. Going further, the film also delves into what makes a soul and what makes life worth living.
Yet it feels as though such a subject was far too deep that there’s a sensation as though Pixar had to pump the brakes on such a tale. This doesn’t exactly make Soul a lackluster movie but it does feel as though grander ideas have been slightly hindered for the sake of being more family-friendly.
The Jazz Teacher With Drive
The film follows Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a jazz pianist who has lost his hopes of ever playing on the stage. He works as a music teacher and is left with little hope for his uninterested students. When presented with teaching full time for benefits, he’s uneasy about accepting such security. It’s a troubling situation for someone who feels as though their spark will soon be doused.
But then the gig of a lifetime comes his way. The famed jazz musician Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) is seeking a pianist for her band and she needs one post-haste. Highly critical, Joe manages to work his magic on the keys to convince her to let him play. Ecstatic with such a gig, his plans are cut short when he finds himself leaving his body unexpectedly.
The Other Side
Outside of his body, Joe’s puffy soul is thrown into an otherworldly dimension that exists just a few steps from total oblivion. Trying to escape the great beyond, he runs into two-dimensional beings that seem to control the flow of souls. Some of them keep track of which ones are two for departure while others arrange new souls for Earth.
Trying to find a way back to his body, Joe stumbles into the new soul mentor program, where he assumes the identity of a great mind to coach raw recruits for becoming human. Going along with Joe’s string of bad luck, he’s posed with the worst soul of the lot, the apathetic 22 (Tina Fey). The prize for being the best teacher essentially means Joe can find his way back to Earth.
I liked how there’s a bit of unique creativity in this other world, though it requires a bit of a stretch in imagination. One of the most magical of spots is a sandy wasteland that is host to both those absorbed in their calling and those lost in where to take their life. It’s a really interesting space of hope and hopelessness. The presence of soul-rescuing sailors in this space, via those in a meditative state, feels like a bit much. But, hey, the film needs to find some more characters somewhere and those who occupy this space can flow between death and reality with ease.
The Lessons of Life
Eventually, the film settles on a buddy formula. As they stumble their way back to reality, body possession mishaps lead to 22 inhabiting Joe’s body and Joe’s soul trying to guide her. What follows is a journey of Joe realizing there’s more to life than your suspected purpose. At the same time, 22 learns first-hand the simple joys of life, from pizza to a fall breeze.
If this story is sounding a bit too melodramatic for a Pixar picture, there are still the familiar animated antics throughout. 22 has plenty of sass that comes from what seems like an eternity of mentorship from the world’s greatest minds. Joe has plenty of slapstick humor the way he desperately tries to make it to the concert on time. The chemistry between the two of them works rather well for their student and teacher relationship blossoming quite naturally for taking place over the course of a day.
The Meaning of Life
There’s a lot to like about Soul in how it’s both an original and thought-provoking animated feature. The animation has a Don Hertzfeldt style with its curvy designs that occupy the detailed reality and the abstract in the other world. The jazz music arranged by Jon Batiste is a real treat for the ears, as well as the surreally whimsical score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
Yet there’s a problem where this type of film feels a tad too light for tackling such heavy topics. Most Pixar films tend to tread fearlessly into new territory and Soul certainly has some guts for trying to tap this kind of story. But the subject of the hereafter is approached in a light enough way where it avoids becoming less interesting for kids. Just don’t expect things to get too cerebral when trying to tackle how we perceive our purpose in life.
I more or less expected this kinda writing but there’s something a bit lacking when watching exactly when the brakes are pumped. For example, there’s a moment where 22 tries to talk a student out of continuing their education because the public school system is a deeply flawed system that doesn’t meet the–whoops, went too far! Let’s back up and have this student’s sense of individual passion kick in to save the day.
Soul is by far the most adult of all Pixar films for both the motivations of the hero and the grander thematic elements. It’s an intelligent film with enough spirit to be inspiring enough for an elder who may feel their time has passed or a young one who feels as though they need to find out what they’re good at in a hurry. The film is pleasing enough on this angle and yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that this is the edge for how far a Pixar film can go.
Disney has allowed this studio to peer into a void that other studios only dream of approaching. But just before it can take the plunge into a whole new world, the audience is pulled back with some silliness and wonder to not let the mind wander too far off. After all, Pixar wouldn’t want to go full Terrence Mallick with a contemplative picture. Maybe one day they will but not today. Today, the family can get some smiles and wit out of Soul.
Did you see Soul? How does it stack up against other Pixar films? Was it better than Onward? Let us know.