Soul came out a month ago, and I am just now getting around to reviewing it.
But it’s still less than the six month delay the film’s release had, so we’re good.
Pixar has become a studio which makes two kinds of films: works of art which come as a result of a creator’s vision, and works of entertainment that pay the bills. It is becoming easier and easier to see the difference between the two as well. Over the past five years, Pixar has released 9 films, and of those, Finding Dory, Cars 3, Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4 are clear examples of the latter which exist in order to make some cash. That isn’t to say that those films cannot be excellent in their own right, but their reason for being is without a doubt to be the big money earners for the studio and
their dark overlord Disney. Inside Out and Coco are the former, as those films are clearly the result of a singular vision shared by the creators of the film.
Onward and The Good Dinosaur both lie somewhere in between, as neither have that innate, next-level of quality which the greatest Pixar films have, but they aren’t tied to any other properties. In some ways, they feel like films made by other studios, which could warrant a third category, but for now they are being put in the grey area closest to the money side of things. Soul may be the most difficult film to categorize among the nine, for while it is closely aligned with the likes of Inside Out and Coco for much of the film, there are also aspects of it which are trite and conventional- which result in a feeling that this is a film which didn’t commit to being one thing entirely. Appropriately, for a film whose narrative is split between two realities- life on Earth and the quasi afterlife- it is itself split between those visionary Pixar films, and the ones which are more run-of-the-mill and mundane.
The film follows a music teacher named Joe who dreams of becoming a professional jazz musician. Fortune finally decides to smile upon him when a big break comes his way before his untimely demise via plummeting down a sewer tunnel. Ok, he didn’t actually die- this is still a family film after all- but he still travels to a sort of purgatory nevertheless. This other world is the highlight of the film, as it is where all the best moments take place, and where many of its most profound and forward thinking ideas take place. The design of this world is breathtaking, and there are moments where it transcends to something almost sublime. The look and feel of the environment are unlike anything else you will experience in a mainstream film such as this one. It skews towards abstract and experimental with its visuals, its tone and its score. The sound for these locals were done by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, both of Nine Inch Nails, and they match the eeriness and alien of the environments perfectly (and NIN are my favorite band, so there may be some bias, but the score is still great regardless).
These scenes and moments deliver something which no other major animation studio are either willing or even able to deliver. There are moments which are wild and out there. They are creative, ambitious and embark on a visual journey which is difficult to match outside of independent or arthouse cinema. There is a very brief moment, not even 45 seconds long, right around the 12-minute mark of the film which sees our protagonist falling from a path leading to the Great Beyond and through a kaleidoscope of environments which each vary in style and form despite all possessing a visual style of white and grey lines over a black background.
Following this moment, the films returns to its narrative, though even here things are weird and otherworldly. There are characters who are sort of caretakers for those souls who are set to begin their lives on earth, and their designs are magnificent. Created in a style which is meant to mimic a drawing from a single line, these beings move and operate in an entirely different way from anything which might resemble the familiar. Their characteristics and personalities are familiar, but their appearance and function are new.
This trend of finding something new continues as the film proceeds to one of its core concepts in which there are moments when a person enters a sort of zone, groove or zen where they are briefly transported to a portion of this world beyond. That in and of itself is not a thrilling as the consequences of this drive: obsession. We witness what becomes of a person’s spirit once their passion is replaced with a consuming obsession; their rounded and cartoonish spirits twist and contort, and are surrounded by a menacing and grotesque shroud of darkness which transforms them into something wholly inhuman. Their singular focus is couched in a single phrase which becomes washed out and distorted until it becomes an unrecognizable roar of these lost creatures. This idea and the corresponding designs are among the high points of the film, and had the entire film taken place in this magical world, the film would have had the potential to stand as one of the best and most inspired films Pixar has produced.
Right when the film is reaching a zenith of interesting ideas and concepts, we return to Earth and this return to a much more conventional film form. Joe is joined by the “friend” he made while in the spirit world as they seek to return to Joe’s. However, there is a mix-up and 22 enters Joe’s body, and Joe enters a cat body. Cue body switching hijinks for the next 30 minutes. A this point the film loses all of the magic which it produced while embracing the non-conventional. The central idea and concept remain, but are played out via normal means, and the film feels like something that we’ve seen before- its single largest indictment.
The second is also apparent during this time, and the ensuing scenes even once we make a return to the spirit world: Joe is shockingly unlikeable, and might be one of Pixar’s most unlikeable protagonists. He is selfish and single-minded throughout much of the film. He does not end up this way, of course, he is a complete character with an accompanying character arc, but along the way he is a character that I found difficult to root for.
Fortunately, the film makes efforts to redeem itself, of which it is mostly successful. While gallivanting around and engaging in the usual body switch antics coupled with some cat jokes, the film appears to be barreling straight towards an easy conclusion in which Joe sees that his life’s purpose is not music, but teaching, or something else akin to that. In other words, that was the easy answer if the film wanted it. It didn’t, and instead we got the harder answer, which is far more satisfying- there is no purpose. Throughout the film, the idea of a person’s spark is presented, and, as we view the film through Joe’s perspective, we equate this spark (think inspiration or a person’s greatest passion which gives them life) with a purpose. Joe’s spark is music, and this we think that his purpose in life is also music. This tethering of ideas is shattered two thirds of the way through the film when one of the spiritual caretaker’s states, “We don’t assign purposes, where did you get that idea?… A spark isn’t a soul’s purpose. Oh you mentors and your passions, your purposes, your meanings of life! So basic.”
“So basic.” That is the idea of the film. Expending effort in order to find one’s purpose in life is a meaningless endeavor, for life itself has no purpose. This is in no way a cynical or nihilistic, in fact it is rather pure: life itself is its own purpose, and one should simply desire to live it as best they are able. In this way, the film returns to a bigger idea than anything a simple body swap movie ever could. Not everything is rainbows and sunshine from here on out, as the ending which the film fought to earn is somewhat diminished by the conclusion to Joe’s arc. After cheating his way back to life, and then taking 22’s spark to return to life again Joe returns to the spirit world in order to save 22 from becoming a lost soul. It is a moment of sacrifice for Joe and arrives directly after Joe has his epiphany about his life, and indeed life itself. He saves 22 and is ready to conclude his journey to the Great Beyond. Even in his own words, when he is told that he won’t get a chance to live, “Its ok, I already did.” As he stands at the precipice of the end, he is given a second chance and simply returns to his life.
Perhaps killing off this character was a step too far for what is ultimately still a family film, and in that regard it is right at home with the other experimental and ambitious aspects of the film. It doesn’t commit to being something new- something ambitious. It enters the shallow end of the experimentation and abstraction pool, but doesn’t allow itself to wade further into the deep end. It played it safe in too many aspects, and sort of undercuts some of its own boldness by adhering to conventions. After getting a taste what a Pixar abstract or experimental film might look like, it was difficult to go back. Admittedly, this is very likely to be a niche take, but Soul succeeded in whetting my appetite for something truly different and experimental from Pixar, before yanking me back down to a reality replete with cat jokes.