One of the most exciting and anticipated films of this tumultuous year in film was Soul: Disney-Pixar’s latest animated feature. Very much in the same vein as Inside Out, otherwise known as the last time Disney-Pixar blew our minds with a fascinating and original concept, Soul follows a down-on-his-luck struggling musician named Joe, who, after suffering rejection after rejection and settling for a temp job as a middle school band teacher, finally gets his break at a high-level gig in a jazz band. Things get complicated when he falls down a manhole and dies, dropping his soul in a metaphysical dimension where souls are made and developed before they’re assigned a body on Earth. With the help of one of the oldest, most stubborn souls in history, he tries to find a way to get back into his body before his big gig. The film stars Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey in the lead roles as Joe and Soul #22, as well as Graham Norton, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade and Rachel House among others. The film was directed by Kemp Powers and Pete Doctor, the director behind Inside Out, Monsters Inc., and Up among other Pixar projects.
This movie was more or less exactly what I expected it to be. It must be frustrating for Pixar to have set the bar so high that an extraordinary film doesn’t do much more than meet expectations, but as quality problems go, it doesn’t get much better, and the experience of watching it gets no worse. Soul is an absolutely beautiful film, yet another shattering concept and execution from arguably the most consistently excellent studios in the world. The is brilliant. The concept of the Great Before and the training program for souls is as creative as it gets, and they pepper it with little details, winks and nudges (like sending a disproportionate amount of new souls into the “self-absorbed” chamber), that ground it so firmly in the imagination. I loved the idea of the “Zone”, and how a person could get lost in it if they became too obsessed with it. There were a couple of moments of inconsistency and vagueness where the rules were maybe a touch less ironed out than they could’ve been, but they’re of the sort where to pick them out would be, aptly, nit-picking. The bottom line is the idea is extraordinary, and is up there with the best of Pixar (actually maybe it’s on par, but that’s a hell of a par).
The concept tied into the narrative really well too, which was made the narrative interesting. The characters were decent, but a little too conceptual to have depth, particularly in 22’s case. That said, she had development (literally-but-not-really the point of the film), which felt real. I was really impressed when they take a running gag in the film, a really funny one, and make it point of emotional conflict. That’s the kind of thing you need to get right, in that moment and in terms of the film’s overall tone, and they do a heck of a job here. Soul is really funny, laugh-out-loud funny and often, without ever being forced or trying to do both at the same time. As for Joe’s character, I think the skeleton of it was great, and what we got did the job in the film really well, but he could’ve benefited from some more time to develop his relationship with music and his goals for it. It’s not that these things weren’t established, they were, I just think that the film could’ve stood to be 15-20 minutes longer to dig everything half an inch deeper. This might just be me wanting more, which is a testament to how good the film is, but I wonder if the feat of telling a story that starts and finishes while explaining and playing with the rules of a completely unique concept might be less impressive than how good the film might’ve been if there’d been just a bit more of it. Of course, these things are insanely hard to make, and it’s easy for me to sit here and be like “come up with more genius ideas.”
The explicit messaging was maybe a little bit done, a little bit obvious, I felt the film deserved a better ending than “and I’m gonna live every bit of it,” but the manner in which that messaging was conveyed was extraordinary. I also think that that line doesn’t exactly do the films messaging justice, there’s a much less expressible layer to what the film does. The idea that a spark isn’t a “purpose,” for example, is pure gold, and there’s something more powerful in the representation of the joie de vivre or whatever name you call it by on screen that does the heavy lifting as far as messaging goes. It’s a powerful idea, and one that’s rarely been more important.
There are other aspects of the film, like animation quality and effects, that I’m really in no position to talk about other than to say I enjoyed it a great deal (not at I’m in an actual position to talk about any of the rest of it, and yet here we are). The visual aesthetic is the kind that I ascribe to Inside Out (hence all the comparisons), which is to say extremely watchable and pleasant, and, more importantly, believable. The writing is pristine, as would be necessary to bring out the concept properly, but the syntax is just as good. It’s a whimsical watch, funny and light, making real comedy about innocent stuff, and the voice acting is of a calibre that everything works.
I came into this movie with very high expectations, and every single one of them was met. Pixar’s only gone and done it again, damn those perfectionist bastards. I loved this film very much, and I can’t think of a better way to spend an hour and a half or so of this particular holiday season than to be reminded that the small things are important, and, with the right attitude, they can be wonderful. Please go watch Soul.
– Aman Datta
Aman’s Score – 86/100