Artnewspress: Pete Docter has made three modern classics for Pixar: Inside Out, Up, and Monsters Inc. So when I say that his latest film, Soul, is merely good instead of great is to judge it against a truly exemplary filmography for any director. But Soul feels more formulaic, predictable, and safely played than Docter’s past films. There’s still a lot of heart and beauty to enjoy about Soul, but a film that wants to ruminate on the meaning of life invites fiercer scrutiny than the usual animated family film might. And Soul is not your usual animated family film. (It should also be noted that Soul, like many other Pixar films, has a Co-Director in creative contributor Kemp Powers.)Instead, this is much more a study of a middle-aged man having an existential crisis thanks to a near-death experience. A 40-something, part-time music teacher in the New York City school system who’s never caught his big break as a jazz pianist — he’s not even looking for fame and fortune, just a spot playing at a local club with one of his faves — isn’t exactly the type of protagonist kids usually get in a genre populated by spunky heroines and mischievous misfits. But parents, or adult viewers in general, may see parts of themselves in the Jamie Foxx-voiced protagonist, Joe Gardner, and his unobtained hopes and dreams.
The film is about two souls: Joe, who doesn’t want to die, and 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), who is already world-weary without ever having lived, so doesn’t even want to be born. They appear to be mismatched partners but end up helping each other learn important lessons along the way; that formula is part and parcel of many movies — especially Pete Docter’s, whose films all feature a pair of characters teamed together to drive the plot and the emotional journey. But while Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey acquit themselves well in their respective roles, Joe’s character development is ultimately short-shrifted in service of 22’s emotional growth and journey. Neither character is really as engaging, humorous, or dynamic as other Pixar protagonists; 22 is never as appealing as, say, Joy in Inside Out, and Joe doesn’t measure up to the likes of Up’s Carl Fredricksen.As cleverly conceived and executed as it is by Pixar’s great artists, The Great Before is as bright and rigidly organized as an Apple store; and with its emphasis on installing features and programming products for delivery, there is a commerce-like quality to it all. In an almost robotic fashion, Counselors (all named Jerry) arbitrarily assign personalities to souls before sending them on their way to be born as children. But if the theory is that genetics, environment, and life experience play no real part in the formation of making us who we are, then Soul’s emphasis on finding the “spark” that will brighten your life on Earth seems misguided, or at least its notion of predeterminism not terribly well thought out. (All those souls made “apathetic” at the whim of some counselor seemingly have the deck stacked against them from the get-go, which is a depressing thought.) Soul’s message seems to be: Find joy in being made an iPhone 4S instead of a 12 Pro Max and stop looking for that upgrade. (This movie brought to you by people living their dreams as filmmakers.)Spiritual without being overtly religious, Soul is so safe and agnostic in its depiction and messaging that it often makes these realms feel… well, less than spirited. It’s near-impossible not to compare Soul to Coco, Pixar’s better, more vibrant, musical, and meaningful look at life and death, which provokes a deeper and more resonant emotional response than anything Soul conjures. Even when weighing Soul against Docter’s own films, nothing here is as tear-jerking or cathartic as Bing Bong’s farewell in Inside Out or the opening 10 minutes of Up. Docter seems apprehensive to really push viewers’ buttons this time as much as we know he can, making Soul a muddled mishmash of glum acceptance of one’s limitations and “enjoy the moment” gift card sentimentality.The divide between body and soul actually ends up being a key part of Soul, so it’s noteworthy that the story is stronger and more distinct when it comes to the specificity of the corporeal, living world than it is in imagining an otherworld devoid of culture and art and family, all of which I’d argue make Joe Gardner who he is more than whatever he was programmed with before he was born. Soul feels most alive, or at least more like its own movie, when it comes back down to Earth. Its depiction of New York’s jazz scene and of Joe’s normal world is vividly realized, with some truly amazing, near-photo-realistic rendering of characters and settings, particularly the neighborhood barbershop, the Half Note Club, and their respective regulars. (And with jazz playing such a prominent role, Soul thankfully sounds wonderful, with Jon Batiste providing the original jazz music and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross composing the minimalist, ethereal score, making Soul as pleasant to the ears as it is to the eyes.)Soul marks Pixar’s first movie with an African-American lead and, along with Coco, it’s mostly populated by (and cast with) people of color. While Docter has been mentioned a lot in this review, Soul was co-directed and co-written by Kemp Powers, an African-American journalist-turned-screenwriter who has spoken about making the Black characters and Joe’s community feel authentic. A character such as jazz musician Dorothea Williams (voiced with cool authority by Angela Bassett) feels alive and has as much presence as she might’ve in a live-action movie. If anything, I would’ve liked even more exploration of Joe’s everyday world and what and who he’s attached to in it in order to make his character arc all the more rewarding by the end. Joe’s relationships with his hard-working mom Libba (Phylicia Rashad) and promising music student Miho (Esther Chae) resonate more than the transactional one he has with 22.
As high-minded and celestial as its aspirations are, Soul never quite reaches the heights — storytelling or emotional — of past Pixar films like Inside Out or Up. A sort of animated riff on Heaven Can Wait, Soul is stronger when it comes to exploring Joe Gardner’s Earthbound life — one of jazz, family, and community — than it does in its more muddled handling of the world beyond (or is that before?) ours. There’s some truly gorgeous animation on display here, particularly in its depiction of New York and Joe’s daily life, a fair amount of great music, and a lot of philosophical musings to ponder – even if they run into depressing, fatalistic dead ends sooner than I’d expected. But while Soul offers food for thought and has heart, it’s never quite as funny, engrossing, or emotionally rewarding as Pixar’s best.