Movie Review: “Soul”

     Back when, Pixar was renowned for its animated storytelling, beheld as the pinnacle of mainstream western animation. Features like Toy Story and Bug’s LifeFinding Nemo and Wall.E, moviegoers took to the Disney subsidiary’s approach to plot driven, in-depth storytelling and it helped transcend the expectations of what an animated film could be. Japan was ahead of the curve in that regard, through general anime fare and Studio Ghibli, but, even then, Pixar offered an unmatched production-value and cinematic flare.

   In the present, really, not a lot has changed. Pixar is still, more or less, the head honcho, which is more a commentary on the inconsistency of western animation than it is the consistency of Pixar. 

   DreamWorks has had its moment in the sun, with breakthroughs like the How to Train your Dragon series, but never really had a maintainable hot streak, whereas companies like Illumination couple low-quality animation with low-quality ambition, raking in millions and billions through merchandisable characters like the Minions. 

   Warners Bros. Animation had massive success with their wonderful Lego Movie film (and the hilarious Lego Batman and solid Lego Movie sequel), but appears to have since killed that fledgling franchise altogether, meanwhile, features like Scoob! show it has a considerable ways to go before it is a real adversary.

   Sony Pictures Animation brought the wonderful Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, then, followed it with Angry Birds 2 and the upcoming Hotel Transylvania 4 film. Again, promising, but unproven and inconsistent.

   Pixar has, for the most part, went unopposed, aside from Disney‘s inhouse animation company, which has arguably outdone Pixar in recent years with feature films like Zootopia and Moana. 

   In the last decade (the ’10s, if you will), Pixar has went back to the well with mixed results (in my opinion), with sequels like Monsters UniversityToy Story 4Incredibles 2, and Finding Dory, which were satiable, but unworthy of their predecessors and unbecoming when compared to Pixar’s heyday. Whereas, the Cars series was bad enough I wanted to single it out by itself. Meanwhile, its original fare, which is what I look forward to most, has been inconsistent at best. As much as I enjoyed Inside Out, it was followed by the bland Good Dinosaur, and, as much as I enjoyed Coco, it was followed by this year’s paint-by-the-numbers Onward.

   That in mind, had Universal released Onward, or had Illumination paired Chris Pratt and Tom Holland for this animated feature, it would be a considerable success, benefited by solid voice talent and modest-by-Pixar-standard, but, otherwise, high-quality animation. Since it is Pixar, a company with such an acclaimed track record (and all the money in the world), Onward is standard and inoffensive, with storytelling that’s easy to telegraph and insights we’ve already had explored in previous, superior Pixar fare.

   Pixar’s latest film Soul, like Onward, comes in uncertain times, met with detriment by the all mighty Covid-19 pandemic (which I feel I have mentioned at least one-hundred times now on Vinatici and Readers Digested), seeing an unconventional release through the Disney+ streaming service on Christmas Day.

   I was excited for the new film. Like many of you, I celebrated the holidays with a movie night pairing Soul with the newly released Wonder Woman 1984. I will say that I had tapered expectations for the film. I am always hopeful, but I was not anticipating a fantastic film, but, rather, an enjoyable, entertaining film. Which, I think, is likely fairer, healthier expectations to have for any film in general.

   Directed by Pete Docter and co-directed by Kemp Powers, Soul was written by Docter, Powers and Mike Jones, respectively. At the helm, Pete Docter is already a proven asset to Pixar, having previously directed Inside OutUp, and Monsters Inc., which might have many of you foaming at the mouth for the latest straight-up emotional gut punch. The film comprises itself of vocal talent that includes the fantastic Mr. Jamie FoxxTina FeyQuestlovePhylicia RashadDaveed DiggsRichard Ayoade, and Angela Bassett.

   Soul follows a middle school music teacher named Joe Gardner, whose aspirations to become a famous jazz musician have long since went unfulfilled. His life, otherwise, is not ideal. Certainly, not as bad as it could be, but that really comes down to ones’ perception about the environment their in, doesn’t it? One person might adore being able to mold today’s youth and introduce them to what they covet so dearly, others might feel like that’s the profession of someone who has already blazed their trail. Joe Gardner does not feel he has done that. It is an unfortunate truth to life that, in spite of how passionate you may be about something or how committed you may be, you may still fail to achieve your goals. One can only hope you land somewhere at least in that field, but even that is not a given.

   Things change when Joe is met with dual opportunities: either take the full-time position as music teacher, which comes with job security and stability beyond what he has had, or play with beloved jazz musician Dorothea Williams. In the end, he thinks it over and, … dies. That’s right, our protagonist is now dead, but unwilling to accept it. As the stairs lead him toward the beyond, Joe runs in the other direction, in search of any way he can return to Earth, reclaim his body, and the opportunity he had been given.

   The film had an emotional resonance with me that I had not expected prior. Although I thought I knew what this film would be about and, in many ways, I do feel like it has familiar and sentimental story beats, I did not anticipate the actual takeaway that it had. What I had expected was a film about the love and affection one has for their passion in life, like how much Joe Gardner covets and cherishes jazz music, and I was ready to accept that. Instead, this film offers a better, more poignant insight. The sentiment that a person can become enveloped completely by their chosen trade. That, in spite how we romanticize the contrary, no one is born to do anything or meant to be anything.

   Be it Kinky Friedman or Bukowski that said it, there is a saying that you should find something that you love and let it kill you. This film, at least from my interpretation, suggests the opposite of that. Don’t let it kill you. Enjoy it. Love it, even. But don’t allow yourself to be enshrouded in your artform or passion so much so that you forget to live a life beyond that or participate in society, because you’ll miss out.

   Benefited by the voice-acting talent fronted by Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey, Soul’s characters are likeable, albeit, certainly cast for specific boxes in a checklist, and help propel what is a very emotional, thoughtful concept. The animation is of a very high production, but, more than that, through the depiction of the afterlife and the inner workings of death, is allowed to show some unique, inspired visuals. Although this film may not have the emotional attack on the senses that Up did in its opening minutes, I would argue this is, by far, the most existential and melancholy of Pixar‘s catalog – and, perhaps, even, one of the most beautiful.

   This is a film that succeeds so superbly at carrying itself, that you don’t care when you know where it is headed, but are simply grateful to be along for the ride. It offers something, it’s not downright sad nor is it uplifting, it does not solve itself, but it changes how you look at them through a soft wisdom.

   I thoroughly enjoyed this film. Part of me is uncertain how heightened I am by the high of my own emotional attachment. I have always dedicated a lot of myself to the written word, committed myself to fiction storytelling, and all these worlds I have created and nourished. Sometimes though, it can feel like an equivalent exchange – where, the more you give, the more it takes away from you. You can become so focused on succeeding at one thing, you don’t notice when you are failing at so many other things. So, seeing a person’s passion presented in a way where it is not made sentimental nor necessarily praised with enabling, superficial encouragement, went over well with me. That aside, I do think it is a quality film, beat-by-beat, and the most inspired I have seen Pixar in a while. However, this is not only a great film for modern Pixar, but one of Pixar’s best films altogether. I would highly recommend it.

Rating: – 4.5 out of 5.0

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