Pixar’s Soul was one of the seemingly uncountable theatrical films that had to be postponed or relegated to streaming due to COVID-19. In Soul‘s case, it was the latter. Directed by Pete Docter (Up, Inside Out), the film has gotten overwhelmingly positive reviews. What are my thoughts on Pixar’s latest? Read on to find out!
Note: There will be spoilers!
For those unfamiliar with the film, Soul tells the story of a middle-aged African-American middle school band teacher, Joe Gardner, voiced by Jamie Foxx. He doesn’t feel like his life is fulfilling enough and doesn’t even want to accept a full-time teaching position that has been offered to him even though that would be his first full-time position ever. He soon receives the offer of a dream gig which he’s ecstatic about though, but accidentally falls to his death before he can live it out.
He awakens as his soul on the way to the Great Beyond. Refusing to accept his fate, he tries to escape and ends up in the Great Before, a place where unborn souls are prepared for their future life on Earth. There he meets a soul known as 22, voiced by Tina Fey. She has no desire to live on Earth, so they make a deal. He will be her mentor helping her gain her Earth badge, a the badge a soul needs to go to Earth, and she’ll give it to him so that he can be reunited with his body.
The rest of the film pretty much follows that path and overall, I agree with the critics that the film was good. However, I don’t think it’s anything amazing and not one of Pixar’s absolute bests. The film deals with many heavy topics such as life fulfillment, life purpose, life spark, death, etc. For these reasons, many critics (such as my friend, Rachel Wagner, from Rachel’s Reviews) see Soul as a film for adults, rather than for kids. And honestly, yeah, I agree with that statement.
The animation of the film is good, but nothing groundbreaking, and honestly it’s not meant to be. The film is supposed to be a serious look on life and keeping the animation grounded helps keep the focus on the themes presented in the film. On that note though, I also don’t think the themes were executed well enough. I’m still confused by so much: the lost soul rescuers, how they can travel back and forth between the Great Before and the real world, the difference between “spark” and “purpose”, how did the cat’s soul return, what is the point of the Terry character, etc.
A poignant scene to me was when Joe (technically 22 as Joe) goes to get a haircut at his local barbershop. Joe comes to many realizations in that scene when his barber, voiced by Donnell Rawlings, tells him that his dream was to become a veterinarian, but he’s honestly happy as a barber.
Another poignant scene for me was when a singer, Dorothea Williams, voiced by Angela Bassett, tells Joe a saying about a fish. A young fish asks an old fish how to get to the ocean. The old fish tells the young fish that this is the ocean. The young fish says that this is water, but he’s looking for the ocean.
I honestly feel these two scenes alone make the film and brings me to the conclusion that Soul would have been better as a Pixar short than as a feature-length film.
Another change that I would make to the film would be to have Joe Gardner actually die at the end of the film. They give him a second chance at life at the end of the film, but I feel it would have been much more poignant had they let him die and let 22 live her life on Earth sharing all she learned from Joe with whomever she meets. Yes, that would have been incredibly heavy, but I think this film isn’t made for kids anyway, so that shouldn’t have been an issue.
There’s also the issue that many critics are pointing out regarding some animated films featuring African-American characters. Some of them have the characters appear as other beings for a good chunk of their films, rather than as themselves. For example, in this film, Joe appears as a soul or a cat for a good chunk of the film. Princess Tiana is a frog for much of The Princess and the Frog and Lance Sterling is a pigeon for much of Spies in Disguise. I don’t think these are done intentionally, but it is a disturbing trend and we need to have more animated films with African-American characters just remaining human.
From my review so far, you probably think I didn’t like anything about the film and that I have no soul. (See what I did there?) No honestly, I do enjoy the movie. I enjoyed the story that was trying to be told; I enjoyed most of the characters; I enjoyed the voice performances especially by Jamie Foxx, Phylicia Rashad, and Questlove. Tina Fey pretty much played herself, but it also was a great performance. Heck, I was even surprised by how good Graham Norton’s voice performance was in this film! And I think Rachel House’s character is the first animated character I’ve ever heard with a New Zealand accent.
I also admire the film for not showing what happens in the Great Beyond so as to be respectful of everyone’s beliefs of the afterlife.
Summing up, Soul is a good movie but not Pixar’s greatest. It needed one or two more rewrites or refocuses, but honestly, it won’t disappoint most people.