Those who have grown up watching Pixar films know of the studio’s unique ability to dress mature, adult themes in the vernier of childlike wonder. Anti-imperialism in “A Bug’s Life”. The journey of fatherhood in “Finding Nemo”. The human cost of corporate profit in “Monsters Inc.”. And of course, watching Woody learn to deal with life’s changes throughout the “Toy Story” saga. While the company has built a reputation for itself, we couldn’t help but notice them slipping in their recent releases. Namely in sequels and prequels to their more successful hits. There’s certainly a lot fun to be had in films like “The Incredibles 2”, “Finding Dory” and “Monsters University”, but they just lack a certain creative spark to them.
This year’s “Soul”, however, had us intrigues. An animated film that attempts to address some of life’s biggest questions. What is one’s purpose in life? What do we leave behind when we well…leave it all behind? An ambitious undertaking that Pixar mostly delivers on.
The premise of the film follows the life, and afterlife, of jazz musician/teacher Joe Gardner. A man who is not happy with his life and sees a rare opportunity to join a local jazz band. On the day he’s accepted a role in the band, he suddenly dies. It’s not over, though. Joe soon embarks on a daring journey to escape the afterlife back to the mortal plane. He enlists the aid of a soul named 22. An unborn soul who has absolutely no desire of being tied down to a human existence, or so she thinks. Together, they’ll defy the odds and discover that there’s more to life than meets the eye.
“Soul” essentially functions as a sort of spiritual parable. One that is more rooted in the zeitgeist of the modern age than any particular religious tradition. The film posits an intriguing discourse that rejects the notion of essentialism, that people are born with a certain purpose or dharma. The film very much falls on the existentialist perspective. You’re not born into this world to simply do one particular thing or fulfill one specific function. Your purpose, much like life, is ever changing and you have to be the one to create your meaning.
Now, this concept isn’t terribly novel. It’s pretty much the ethos of every single Disney film past the 2000s. What sets “Soul” apart, though, is in its attempt to thoroughly explore the disillusionment and wonder of the human condition in emotionally resonant and thought-provoking ways. It never feels like the film is subjecting viewers to a lengthy Philosophy 101 class. As the narrative unfolds, the viewer begins to see Joe and 22’s growth and relationship which evolves into something deeply endearing.
That being said, there is one particular pet-peeve we have with Pixar films. Something we noticed in films like “Inside Out”. That is the film’s need to express abstract concepts in specific characters. Some might say that these expressions make the film more accessible to younger viewers. There is value to that notion but overall, we find it a tad lazy and uninspiring. It would have been more effective to have Joe and 22’s journey play out in a more grounded and organic way. In lieu of interjecting the plot with magical creatures and a needless bureaucratic antagonist. It seems like this Pixar trope is here to stay, for better or for worse.
Actors Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey do a phenomenal job as Joe and 22. Foxx lends a world-weariness to the character that feels both appropriate and familiar. Foxx often takes up the role of a hard leading man in films. To see him carry the role of Joe with such grace and understanding is a revelation. Something we haven’t seen since his days in “Collateral”. Comedian Tina Fey breathes plenty of life into her part as the stubborn, set-in-her-ways unborn soul. What’s interesting is how the two characters frequently exchange their roles of jaded cynic and wide-eyed wonderer.
Too often these dyadic relationships devolve into this generic “well I guess we’re not so different” dynamic. Surprisingly, “Soul” forsakes that tired trope for one that refuses to settle into any preconceived mold. One that replicates a living and constantly growing bond that can accommodate for plenty of goofy laughs and weighty emotional moments. The big cathartic moment at the end is made even more poignant thanks to this refreshing take. Even if the payoff can be spotted a mile away.
Now, let’s talk about the animation. Oh, there are moments in “Soul” that capture a reality far more beauteous than anything we’ve seen. A heightened facsimile of our world, imbued with so much more shine and colour. The opening scene of the film in which we see the busy streets to the expressive character models left us gawking. It was like watching an Ernie Barnes’ painting come to life on screen. It was nothing short of magical.
Then, we cut to the more supernatural elements of the film and unfortunately, it all feels terribly uninspired. We understand that Pixar was trying to capture a vision of the human soul as vaporous or ethereal. Something that feels culturally universal. You’re telling me that a floating amoeba-looking blob was the best you could come up with? This is the studio that gave us some of the most iconic visuals in animation history!
There’s probably some spiritual significance or brilliant sub-text to the way they animated the souls. Frankly. it’s of little consolation. We were begging to return to Joe’s grounded world of Black Americana at every second.
“Soul” doesn’t quite capture the high marks of Pixar’s glory days but it does make for a wonderful film for the holidays. A whimsical and complex existentialist discussion veiled in a powerful human story. It is unfortunate that the quality of its animation is inconsistent and some of its tropes tiresome. Still a solid, fun film for both families and philosophy freshmen. You can now catch Pixar’s “Soul” on Disney+ streaming services or at your local cinema wherever they’re still open.
Funnily enough, we found Pixar’s earlier film this year, “Onward” to deal with the themes of death and loss as well. We’ll let you decide which one did a better job in the comment section down below.
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