New Releases: Soul
Pixar has been faltering a little of late. It’s previously impeccable record of hit after hit has stalled with their recent films Onward (Dan Scanlon, 2020), which failed to make a splash, and Coco (Adrian Molina and Lee Unrick, 2017), which, while popular, was not outstanding. Soul (Pete Docter, 2020) is their latest release, going directly onto Disney+ in lieu of cinemas being open. Can it revive Pixar’s dream machine? Or is it just another example of declining output? Read on to find out…
The film follows Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx), an out-of-work jazz pianist and part-time school teacher. One day he gets lucky – he is invited to play with the great musician Dorothea (Angela Bassett). Joe is so excited that he strolls home without a care in the world – he doesn’t notice the traffic having to swerve to avoid him, nor the open manhole that fatally lies in his path. Before long, Joe’s body is lying in a crumpled heap while his soul floats up to heaven, only Joe isn’t going to take this lying down – he can’t die on the best day of his life! In true Pixar style, he stumbles into magical worlds, makes quirky friends, and finds a way to get his life back, but, in the end, is this truly what he wants? It’s a clever conceit that allows Soul to display not only the spectacle and imagination we have come to expect from Pixar, but also allows Docter’s film to ruminate on the meaning of life and the nature of being. Ambitious stuff, and yet, for some reason, Soul doesn’t quite manage to execute its smart vision. In fact, the more I reflect on it, the more the movie leaves me cold. For all its crafted animation and existential philosophy, it lacks some ineffable quality – perhaps the very soul from its title.
The visual cues in Soul are taken primarily from two distinct sources: A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1946) and Inside Out (Pete Docter, 2015). Again, you can’t fault the ambition in drawing on these two immensely successful sources, but there are times when it doesn’t quite work for Soul. For example, the purgatory that Joe finds himself in – “The Great Before” as it’s known in the film – feels like a menu screen or a tutorial for a very simple video game: perhaps something on the Nintendo Wii. It contains formless blobs wandering about and tons of exposition, which swiftly become just as irritating in the film as they do when you want to get on with that frustratingly simple Wii game. I suppose Soul is catering to its younger audience here, but for the adults watching, there is way too much explaining what is going to happen before it happens. Alongside this unbearable landscape come life-drainingly boring characters. You see, the problem with making the majority of the characters in your film featureless, personality-less blobs is that they are uninteresting. Who would have guessed it? Worse still are the contrived antagonists – more shapeless entities, but with jagged edges this time instead of rounded ones. These characters, given voice by such esteemed and unique actors such as Richard Ayoade and New Zealander Rachel House are nowhere near as funny as the film thinks they are, and, in fact, their distinct accents unfortunately end up just being distracting and annoying. Add in the very odd choice of Graham Norton playing an important and yet very odd character and you get the perfect lesson in how not to put together a voice cast.
These problems with character are only compounded by the fact that Joe, the only one who is actually well developed, spends half of the film stuck inside the body of a cat. It’s a device that allows him to see his life from an outside perspective, and it does lead to some enjoyable moments of self-discovery. But, out of the many roads down which this movie could have driven its fascinating concept, I am not convinced Docter chose the correct one. It is a film full of bright ideas and simmering emotion, but it lacks execution, and you come away feeling unsatisfied – the pot of emotion never quite boiled over and the ideas never quite reached a revelation that could make you see the world differently. So, despite its promise and a few flashes of genius (Joe’s wordless epiphany comes to mind as the film’s stand-out moment), in the end, Soul ends up furthering Pixar’s declining quality, rather than reversing the trend.
At time of writing, Soul is available to watch on Disney+.