My Thoughts: SOUL (2020)

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.

Unless your name is Edward Norton, all people should steer clear of manholes!

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.

I’m surprised his body didn’t suffer more damage than that!

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.

This screenshot alone confuses me!

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.

“You’re joking now, right?”

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.

Speaking of which, any guesses as to where 22 ended up? China? Nepal? India?

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.

“Are you saying that’s a good thing or a bad thing?”

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.

12 thoughts on “My Thoughts: SOUL (2020)”

  1. I loved this movie so much – I’ve already watched it 3 times. The point about it being for adults rather than kids is interesting as that would be my first instinct too, but I’m hearing from a lot of my friends with kids that their youngsters really like it. Obviously it depends on the child but I think kids are a lot smarter than we give them credit for.

    I have seen some people (adults lol) being frustrated that they still had questions at the end of the film. I think that’s kind of the point though. A few people asking what happens to 22 once they go to earth – but the message I believe is that 22 could be anything. Which is cool. Some of the other questions you had I do think may have been been lost at some point because they couldn’t fit everything in (and they also were moved up a year from their original timeline). I’ve been reading a lot of interviews with Pete Docter and the creators, so for example one thing he mentioned is that they had this concept that just like cats have 9 lives, they also have 9 souls. So when Joe left the cat’s body one of its other souls moved in, lol. They apparently had a whole scene with it that was cut for time.

    I also wonder if it would have been better to more concretely define the difference between spark and purpose because that’s really the whole message of the movie… I’m not against letting people have to draw their own conclusions but I am seeing a lot of confusion. My belief of what they are trying to say is this: having a purpose in life involves the idea that you are meant to live for some specific reason and to bring something to the world. A spark isn’t your purpose, it’s what makes you WANT to live.

    It’s definitely not a movie that will resonate with everyone because I think a lot also depends on your personal philosophies and life experiences – but for me it hit everything exactly right.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it so much. And yeah, I need to ask people with kids what their kids thought of this film.

      I don’t believe 22 could be “anything”, but I do believe since she’s an “old” soul, she will be a person with an “old soul”, if that makes sense.

      Ah, that makes sense about the cat! Thanks, that’s one mystery solved!

      Yeah, it’s definitely a unique movie! Oh, and something I forgot to mention in my review is that this is the first Pixar movie without John Ratzenberger in it! I missed him, lol!

  2. I agree, I don’t think this was one of Pixar’s best. Backing off from the bittersweet ending really hurt it, in my opinion. Letting Joe die and move on would have been much more in line with the emotions I expect from the studio. I have to commend them for making such a grown-up, cerebral film, though. I’ve ranted at length on my blog about how animation is not just a kids’ medium and I wish it could be celebrated as the art form it is. While this script might not have been successful on all levels, they tried to make art and respected the medium of animation more than most films I’ve seen since like, Fantasia. So gotta give props for even trying that.

    Speaking of art, I was also completely blown away by the animation quality. The Great Beyond/Before was gorgeously surreal– I would hang any frame of that sequence on my wall, no question. Parts of it looked hand-drawn, which really gave me hope that, even if it was CGI masquerading as hand-drawn, we might someday get a whole movie returning to that style! Even in the real world, though, there were moments where they bothered to animate the sweat on the musicians’ brows as they played their hearts out. That level of detail blew me away. Gorgeous, gorgeous work on the animator’s part.

    Also also, Moonwind is everything.

    1. Glad you agree with me about letting Joe die and how this film was made for adults showing animation is a medium for all, not just kids.

      I wish I liked the animation more, but I dunno, the Great Beyond/Before just seemed kinda lazy to me?

      Lol, I was surprised by how good Graham Norton was as Moonwind.

      1. I feel like we haven’t seen anyone try showing animation as an art form since about Bambi. As a whole this was kinda meh but if this is the catalyst towards people showing the medium more respect, I can dig it.

        Ooh, I liked it! It had a surrealist bent that I was kind of into. And like I said, it seemed to combine handdrawn and CGI and we love seeing the return of handdrawn.

        Never have I related to a film line more than his “on the brink of madness” lmao!

  3. I totally agree with your review! the animation was fun–i feel like this is the first time i’ve seen pixar experment with anything other than classic “big eyes small nose = good” character design, and i am here for it! LOL anything to break that mold!!

    but yeah, it was a fun ride and i enjoyed it but the second i tried to go back and unpack the movie the whole thing just kinda… fell apart for me. I know what they were going for but the movie was so so conceptual i think it almost would have done better with LESS explanations–like you were talking about with the lost soul wrangler people, if they hadn’t directly connected that plane to like… mental illness? focus? I dont even know? i would have had way less questions. it felt like they were trying to relate everything back to real life philosophy and psychology phenomenon but the metaphor wasnt really working 50% of the time

    a housemate of mine told me about another review i totally agreed with as well–“they went way too conceptual and spent a lot more time justifying the rules/existance of the world thank just living it.”

  4. Great review! I agree that the film needs “refocusing” and “rewriting”, as you say. More coherence would not hurt as the creativity here is admirable, but also all over the place!

  5. “Spark” is the thing that makes you WANT to live. These can be things like hobbies or just things that bring you joy.

    “Purpose” is what your meant to do with your life, and that’s something much bigger and hard to define.

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