John Liked Soul Alot

SPOILERS!

Rating: 9 out of 10, The more i think about it the more I love it and want to call it S tier! 

Summary: A middle school music teacher finally gets his big break when he suddenly dies. He then embarks on an adventure with an unborn soul that will take him across plains of existence. 

A Pixar movie is always a special occasion for moviegoers. Pixar’s (mostly) stellar track record and their willingness to tell unorthodox stories have made them the pinnacle of Western animation, which sometimes works to their detriment when a film falls short. When you have become the golden goose, it stands out even if there is a slight flaw in one of your eggs. While their latest feature is both inspiring and technically gorgeous, Soul has a few blemishes that I feel can’t be overlooked. 

Water is wet, the sky is blue, and Pixar makes gorgeous animated movies. With each film, Pixar steps up their rendering, use of color, cinematography, and even replicating camera effects in CG. This film also utilizes hand-drawn elements and abstract visual design to differentiate the great beyond versus the land of the living. The standout visual choices for me were the character designs of the living characters. I appreciate that instead of leaning into realism the film took a page from The Incredibles and instead relied on caricature. The designs feel authentically human but are hyper-stylized and emphasized unique facial features. On the other hand, I felt like the souls themselves lacked a certain something and felt too marketable, like some Disney exec wanted another overpriced plushie to sell at the Disney Store. However, that is just a personal nitpick, it works for the film so it isn’t a knock against it by any means, but I was much more visual invested watching the living segments. Soul is a damn visual feast and it’s a shame that we couldn’t enjoy it in theatres. 

The score served its purpose, but wasn’t too memorable for me in hindsight. Pixar has a history of memorable scores and themes, it’s a shame that the movie that is so tied to music didn;t have a score that stuck. It certainly had a nice contrast between Reznor and Ross’ more experimental sound and John Batiste’s jazz arrangements. Forgive me, my knowledge in music is pretty basic. 

The two leads and their performances themselves are fantastic. Jamie Foxx has this way of selling Joe Gardner’s passion, emotional vulnerability, but also flawed desperation that carries the film’s themes. The film isn’t afraid for Joe to be unlikeable at times, his goals and insecurities feel all too real to us when he is willing to say and do harsh things. Joe’s unborn soul companion, 22, is played hilariously by Tina Fey. They hands down have the best lines in the film (shout out to that George Orwell reference) and is the avatar of the film’s overall message. I especially loved the comedic chemistry and dramatic tension built between the two leads. Pixar somehow always manages to create really good duos in their films. The rest of the cast are mostly there for support. They lend well to both heartwarming and comedic moments but tend to just be brief genuine human presences. More meant to be functional to the narrative than stand out on their own. Pixar has always had this sense of maturity when writing their characters. The actors bring a lot to these roles and Pixar continues to break the standard tropes of mainstream animation. These aren’t the polished archetypes of princesses, heroes, or plucky animal sidekicks. These are hilarious, messy, and flawed individuals trying to make sense of their existence, and I was privileged to follow along their journey.  

Aside from wonderful art design and stellar leads, I felt . . .ambivalent towards the film’s concept and world-building toward the afterlife. Visually speaking I loved the design language, but a lot of the ideas felt like recycled concepts from the Inside Out bin, which was also coincidentally directed by Pete Doctor. Perhaps if this was an intentional companion piece to Inside Out, or if the film had decided to make more radical design choices for the afterlife, it wouldn’t be as much of an issue for me. It doesn’t take away from the film’s themes but it does rob it of some originality. Also, the actual rules of the living world versus the dead were far too loose in terms of the stakes. The way souls being able to spiritually visit different planes of existence felt a little too easy. I would also imagine they didn’t want to actually make the leap to end their family film with their lead character dying. 

The real highlight of the movie for me was the highly resonating message. Our protagonist feels like he was robbed of fulfilling his “purpose” to make a living as a successful jazz musician. When he plays piano, he visually becomes lost in the music in a trance-like state. Joe’s desire to perform and live off of his passion is the core of his character. When he is presented with his own life and not being able to fulfill his goal, he feels like it had all been for naught. As an artist myself, I sometimes face that fog of doubt myself: the thought that I hadn’t lived up to my potential or that my dreams will never be realized. The idea that the totality of my life hasn’t meant anything in terms of reaching my goals. Then along comes the character of 22, a soul that has yet to find their “purpose” after thousands of years of preexistence. When 22 actually experiences the living world, the question of “What will be their purpose?” was always at the forefront of my mind. It isn’t until toward the end that the film throws a thematic curveball at your head. The whole time you had been missing the forest for the trees. 22 doesn’t spend their time on earth trying to find some larger purpose, they just LIVE. They connect with the people around them, enjoy the sights, and eat delicious food! Just by living for a few hours, they become ready to live in their own body. It’s such a simple subversion on paper, but it was an incredibly emotional experience for me personally. I related so much to Joe and his need to express himself, make a living out of it, but also to get lost in it. So lost that you forget that your goals and passions aren’t the sum total of your existence. That sometimes it’s okay to just LIVE. Life is so vast and ever changing that it seems so narrow minded to hyper fixate on one aspect of it. It was the right message at the right time for me.

Soul is a solid entry in the Pixar oeuvre. As a film it’s visually masterful, the performances are top-notch, but it does lack some originality. I found the film’s overall theme applicable to my own life, and I am glad I experienced it when I did.

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