Soul (2020)

Soul (2020) Cover

Soul is the new 2020 Pixar film from director Pete Docter (who has helmed big Pixar favorites like Monsters, Inc and Up) that debuts on Disney+ on December 25th. The film, which stars Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey, follows in the footsteps of Pixar and director Pete Docter's earlier outing Inside Out by using innovative visuals and creative storytelling to pack in themes about existence and identity. Yet, this time around, while the Pixar studio stamp of poignant endings, creative ideas, and beautiful animation remain mainstay staples, the adventure and heart of the story feel unusually strained for a film dealing with such potent themes. Pixar's latest feels oddly clunky and while the animated hijinks of body-swapping and delightful lessons about life and purpose feel ambitious, there is a lingering sense of hollowness at the center of the story, and the otherwise intriguing blend of narrative elements in the film begin to resemble cacophony, unlike the symphonic jazz the movie is inspired by. Some of this has to do with the surprisingly recycled familiarity the film comes with; it isn't so much an issue that the movie resembles Inside Out and this year's Over The Moon, but moreso that the filmmakers couldn't find a way to differentiate the movie with a refreshing distinctness despite all the potential. Pixar's Soul is a reminder that while the studio's combinations of animated adventure and cerebral ideas are often admirable, they also risk losing a human touch, and despite Soul's singular intent to be a universal story, the narrative begins to feel distant. Audiences should find plenty of beautiful visuals to savor and interesting things to discuss, but it's unfortunate that nothing ever truly ties the film together.

While I appreciated some of the messages in the film, what keeps the movie from ever achieving greatness is its inability to marry its adventure and character study together to make something of real emotional merit. This is largely because we don't really get to form a connection with the two main characters, Joe (played wonderfully by Jamie Foxx) and 22 (played with wit by Tina Fey), with the film's script busy spending most of its time feeding exposition to prop up the film's main conceit or trying to haphazardly move forward a main narrative with enough visual comedy and slapstick to keep younger audiences entertained. The ideas used in order to depict the afterlife, as well, don't feel extremely original or creative - maybe it has to do with the plethora of entertainment now dealing with this topic, but most of the details around how this Pixar version of the afterlife works feel half-baked or not yet fully formed. As such, the more cerebral or existential aspects of the film don't really mesh well the otherwise cartoony and slapstick body-swap main narrative - it becomes increasingly difficult for the film to balance the ambitions of themes around purpose and existence with the story of a man stuck in a cat's body. 

What remains admirable about Soul is its slapdash attempts to take on big themes with a light-hearted touch, even though this approach hardly differentiates the film from other, better Pixar entries. The audience doesn't get to know Joe as personally as they might want to, but the character's passion for music set against the backdrop of his New York home, feel both inspirational and aspirational. In fact, while watching the film, it becomes hard not to imagine what would happen if Pixar decided to make a more grounded film some day - one that didn't need a clever conceit trying to tie it together - one that might resemble Soul's few but exceptional quiet and wise moments. With a new Buzz Lightyear origin story coming soon though, it appears that Pixar is more than content to cater to the strengths of their formula and known properties, and while Soul ultimately does sometimes benefit from some of those mainstay elements, this time perhaps it loses more than it gains. Soul has the welcome Pixar warmth we all could use in a dismal year, but this movie feels more inert than it should.


Final Verdict:Soul is warm and sometimes wise, but its overly formulaic nature undermines its ability to ambitiously mesh its cerebral adventure and character study.