Gorgeous Pixar movie with a neat little premise, but just lacks a little something…
Aspiring Jazz pianist Joe Gardener is trapped teaching music lessons at a local High School, and just when his big break is around the corner… he dies. But when he rejects his fate and runs from the light, his soul finds itself trapped between worlds, with only the fiery determination to return to its body.
There’s a saying when describing Pixar films nowadays: “What if <blank> but with feelings?” Soul takes a similar leaf from the book that inspired Inside Out (both are Pete Doctor creations, after all) and explores more heady, metaphysical concepts. Taking a double meaning with its title, Soul is about music and about death.
But something else that can be said about Pixar films, is that they have a very clear balance of adult themes with child-friendly cinema. Look at Wall-E. Post-apocalyptic love story with manic robot chase sequences. Or UP. Grieving the death of a loved one and the existential reality of mortality with talking dogs piloting biplanes.
However, Soul does not do this, despite how much its trailer suggests that it does. In fact, Soul would be quite uninteresting to all but the most discerning child. Joe Gardener (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is a pretty miserable and, when it comes down to it, unlikeable protagonist. Early in the movie, he is blindly, selfishly driven towards fulfilling his own goals, talking to himself about how he will dupe everyone else to get his way. The child-friendly cinema barely gets a look-in; featuring in passing slapstick gags in the spirit-realm, and short bursts of giggles when Joe first returns to Earth. No, instead we have many heartfelt moments and moments of heated drama between human characters.
Which isn’t to say that’s a bad thing. The characters in this film are excellently portrayed and beautifully animated. The design work too, is gorgeous; a little more subtle and stylised. Avoiding the “realism” of the Toy Story films and even the more angular designs in The Incredibles, Soul’s humans are relatable yet cartoonish; stylish yet whimsical. The jazz band that our protagonist meets are wonderfully designed, as well as the locals he meets at a barbershop. Joe’s home town of New York City is stunningly rendered.
The animation is flawless, especially when it comes to the signature music segments. The instruments are pristine; glowing with reflections and imperfections. Fingers on keyboards are animated down to the finest details, flowing naturally.
Even the spirit world, where Joe finds himself in, is full of interesting visual flair. The caretakers of the spirit world are abstract outlines; made from lines that form around their environment. Extremely strange and certainly something we’ve never seen before.
But the morality of the movie is strange. Pixar is usually quite good at telling stories that are heartfelt and well-rounded, leaving the audience with a warm feeling inside. Soul is quite baffling by the end.
The majority of the action takes places with Joe and another soul, called 22, returning to Earth. But 22 winds up in Joe’s body and finds himself having to live Joe’s life and learn what life really is. There is an intense dynamic here; Joe is powerless to interact, but 22 begins to experience more from Joe’s life than Joe ever did.
This is fascinating, and could certainly develop intensely. But even when personalities are at loggerheads and Joe does see his own failings, he still gets what he wants. The film depicts Joe as too selfish early on, making the conclusion feel a little unwarranted.
So the experience is mixed. It is a beautiful movie (obviously, it is Pixar) and it has great characters and great voice work. The spirit world is fun, and the film is not what you might expect from the trailer; it has some surprises and some clever ideas.
But it has poor returns for kids in the audience, and it feels like a short story that’s been stretched into a feature length movie. The screenplay should have delivered a different ending, but perhaps that is a subjective criticism.
A good watch for a lazy afternoon.
Additional Marshmallows: Soul, unfortunately, was one of the first theatre releases to be delayed, cancelled, then released digitally on the streaming service Disney+ during the Covid-19 pandemic. It even features a note at the end of the credits that the project was completed within safe work environments.