Anyone familiar with Pixar’s extensive and lauded backlog will know that they are not an animation studio that shies away from addressing deep and emotional issues in their films. From the opening sequence of Up to the closing moments of the latter two Toy Story films, Pixar’s work often meshes winning charm, gorgeous animation, and genuine heart, and their latest offering Soul certainly doesn’t lack for any of those. At the same time, it doesn’t necessarily bring anything new to the table, either.
Soul follows Jamie Foxx’s Joe, a struggling musician-cum-teacher who is offered the opportunity of a lifetime. Before this comes to fruition, however, he dies unceremoniously and finds himself in the ‘Great Before’, a preparation area for yet-to-be born souls. With the help of Tina Fey’s stubborn and rambunctious Soul 22, Joe races through the soul-world and the real-world in an attempt to return to his body.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because it more than likely is. Perhaps the best way to describe Soul is ‘typically Pixar’, with many of the plot points and story-beats feeling like a re-treading of old ground. Of course, such an accusation is inevitable for an animation studio with such a lofty backlog as Pixar, but it especially feels the case here.
The initial fish-out-of-water in another plane of existence with a set timeframe to return is far too reminiscent of Coco, while the quasi-bureaucratic nature of the ‘Great Before’ and the examination of the human psyche is unquestionably Inside Out. The latter in particular is the most direct comparison, considering writer and director Pete Docter was the creative lead on that project as well.
That is not to say that Soul is unoriginal, nor is it unenjoyable. It definitely makes up for these misdeeds with its charm, and there is certainly more than enough to be found here. The animation is as beautifully detailed as one would expect from Pixar, and one can easily become lost in the minutiae of their recreated New York City. This is only enhanced by gorgeous lighting arrangements which see light gently filter through the trees and windows to lend the city an awe-inspiringly magical quality, especially when viewed through 22’s naive eyes.
But it is in their creation of the ‘Great Before’ that Pixar’s efforts shine. There’s an incredible simplicity to the design of the Jerrys – the counsellor figures who prepare the souls for their arrival on Earth – that contrasts perfectly with the chaotic buzz of the real world. The way they seamlessly blend into the background and their inherent charm just highlight the company’s talents.
Likewise, the film would be nothing without its winning soundtrack; in particular, Jon Batiste’s jazz arrangements wonderfully blend with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score to give Soul, well, soul. Music – particularly jazz – is fundamental to the narrative and here it feels like an extension of Joe himself, perfectly conveying his passion that has driven him throughout his life and continues to drive him to return to his body.
With these elements in mind, Soul is a strong rumination on the nature of existence, the meaning of life, and what it means to have had a life well-spent that is delivered in a way that could only come from Pixar. But this is also part of the issue. Soul is surprisingly existential (alarmingly so, in fact) which means that despite its trappings and relentless cutaway gags, it’s hard to understand how well it will resonate with a younger audience.
Certainly, the souls are cute and the body-swap antics are humorous in a cliched sort of way that will appeal to children, but the story on a whole feels far more directed towards older audiences, and not just those that have grown up with Pixar’s films. Soul carries an important message for anyone feeling especially lost or despondent as a result of the current global pandemic, and the seeming stop button that has been pressed on life as a whole.
In this sense, Soul is a surprisingly relevant film that reminds audiences not to give up on their passions or drive regardless of circumstance. It’s not Pixar’s strongest offering by far, but it’s still a gorgeously animated romp with a wonderful soundtrack that hits familiar and arguably reassuring beats. Considering the current times, perhaps that’s just what we need.
Available on Disney+ from Dec 25 2020