Soul (aka Disney and Pixar's Soul) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Just how far can a Pixar film go with touching on more adult subjects? In the past, they have proven they have a certain fearlessness when tackling everything from depression (Inside Out) to death (Coco). But Soul is more of a bittersweet animated film in how it tries to tap into something heavy about perceiving the other world of spirits, what it means to live, and what it means to die. And while this still makes for a pleasing picture that is leagues ahead of most animated films, it feels as though it’s a lesser film for pumping the brakes on something greater.
The story follows Joe (Jamie Foxx), a jazz artist who finds his pianist skills can only take him as far as a teaching gig. That gig is now going to transform into a full-time job with benefits and everything but Joe isn’t quite sure he’s willing to settle. He still pines for the stage and facing a classroom of reluctant band students has made him all the more desperate for finding anything to break out of his usual routine. He may just have that shot when the legendary jazz saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) decides to take him on for one of their evening shows. All he needs to do is dress himself up and prepare for the night he’s been waiting years for.
It’s just unfortunate for Joe that he trips down a manhole and winds up dead. Desperate not to embrace the other side quite yet, he stumbles his way out of the great white light in the sky to find a way back to Earth. He may just find that escape when pretending to be part of the soul mentorship program, ushering raw souls to become ready for Earth with defined personalities. This will not be an easy ordeal as he’s paired up with soul #22 (Tina Fey), her designation implying she has been in such a place as early as the first souls sent to Earth. She’s a hard case student that just can’t be convinced life is worth living. The mismatched pair decide to work together, if still reluctant, to achieve what each one desires most.
Soul has a lot of the familiar Pixar elements. The animation is both decadent and experimental. Any scene that takes place in Joe’s reality is exaggerated yet brimming with details for a city during the fall season. Any scene in 22’s world of the supernatural features figures that seem to exist in multiple dimensions, both flat and round, curving from here to there as abstract shapes. There’s as much hilarious slapstick in Joe’s stumbling ways as there is emotional resonance for his personal journey.
The problem with such a film is that it feels more as though such a picture is pulling back from its full potential. These are some heavy themes of existentialism and defining what it means to be human as more than just focusing on one purpose for a meaning to it all. But such a theme is handled with a lightness that feels almost too light. This creates an unfortunate opposite-Goldilocks zone for the picture, being too adult in the story for kids but too airy in its contemplation to be adult.
That being said, there’s still quite a bit to like on a surface level. One of the most amazing sights of the film is a certain zone that harbors living souls who are either absorbed in their passion or have lost their lust for life. The inspired float in a Northern Lights wonders while the lost souls amble about a wasteland of sand. It’s a neat area even if it doesn’t feel as fully explored, especially for the confounding addition of meditators who can enter this realm as peacekeepers of sorts, trying to rescue the lost souls that are plagued with doubt.
While Soul has far more to offer than other animated films out there, it’s not quite up to the same standards as Pixar’s usual crop of bigger ideas. There’s a lot of unique elements here and yet it only feels half-explored for all its potential, always pulling back before ever getting too deep. Consider a scene where 22 tries to convince one of Joe’s reluctant students that the public education system is a joke that doesn’t warrant such worries for those trapped within its walls. Bold words but they’re treated more as a one-off joke, as though we weren’t supposed to suspect that such an aged soul as 22 could comprehend such topics. Her mindset more or less defines Soul, a film of great potential that never fully comes about.