Pixar Takes the Path Most Traveled
About a quarter into the newest Pixar release Soul, a bemused soul known as “22” (voiced by Tina Fey) speaks for the audience with the enthusiastic brashness we have come to typically expect from animated Disney sidekicks.
“Your life is sad and pathetic, and you’re working so hard to get back to it…this I gotta’ see.”
While it stands on its own as a visually enticing animated film with moments of cutting pathos and inclusive character design, Soul does little to differentiate itself narratively and thematically from gems of the studio’s past.
Released via streaming on the Disney+ platform on December 25th 2019, after an initial summer theater run was pulled due to COVID-19, Soul is helmed by writer/director Pete Docter, known for both Inside Out, Up, and Monsters Inc. The mark of any great director is the ability to deliver consistency which Docter provides again and again by setting memorable scenes of levity against the backdrop of emotional strife. From the playful boisterousness of Joe’s highschool band class of Bronx students—whom he is unable to control—to 22 trying out various passions trying to find their fit, the film paves the road of accessibility to the very grown-up concept of finding purpose in life while being presented through child-like animation. The ability of viewers of any age to grasp core motifs is the true beating heart of the Pixar companies’ movies.
Another strength of the movie is character design and voice acting of black tertiary characters that populate the bustling Bronx environment that part of the movie takes place in, something that has sorely been missing from previous studio productions. Dorthea Williams (voiced by Wakandan Queen Angela Bassett) whose ensemble Joe is literally dying to get into, his disapproving mother (voiced by Broadway legend Phylicia Rashad), the local barber Dez (Chappele’s Show legend, Donnell Rawlings), and Joe’s former student (THE Questlove) all have brief shining moments that illuminate both the sense of community Joe is blind to as well as the pressure on his shoulders. As always with the studio, ubiquitous humor buoys the movie with PG sensibilities that are part and parcel of the Disney side of the brand.
Unfortunately as much as I enjoyed the grounded scenes of reality, the spiritual locals of the “Great Beyond” and the “Great Before”, fictitious locations where half the film takes place, felt flat and uninspired. The Great Beyond is imagined as a long conveyor belt leading up to a giant light akin to a bug zapper, frying incoming souls with a flicker. The latter being a nirvana-esque playground where new souls develop personalities and receive that final spark of purpose culminating in a badge that allows them to be born on earth. While both are filled with colorful design, neither have the depth of conceptual thought we have come to expect from Pixar movies. Even the two central enigmas that seemingly rule over these realms, the “Jerrys” (voiced as ensemble by Alice Brag, Richard Ayoade, Wes Studi, Fortune Feimster and Zenobia Shroff) and “Terry” (Rachel House), seem like tacked on after thoughts rather than mediators of the pre and post consciousness. They serve no deeper role in supporting the overall theme of finding purpose and act simply as crutches to explain the rules of the world to Joe, only to then chastise and chase him for contrived narrative purposes. The saving grace of this world is “The Zone”, where people in the real world send their souls in moments of trance-like focus ranging from theatre to science. In one of my favorite moments from the movie, the character Moonwind (Graham Norton), a hippie sign spinner who sends his soul to the astral plane through meditation, shows Joe the lost souls of the zone. These are individuals who have allowed their passions to turn into obsessions becoming weighed down and covered in darkness. Anyone with an artistic temperament will find this metaphor hits very close to home.
Overall Soul is a good movie that unfortunately comes from a lineage of great movies. It may seem harsh to judge it against other Pixar productions, but this is the AAA top of the line animation production company we are talking about. One that has aggressively cannibalized the creative market and pushed worthy competitors (like Aardman Animations) to the brink of bankruptcy with their corporate efficiency. The technical quality is no doubt top of the line. I am fortunate enough to have a Dolby Vision 4k set up and the textures in Soul truly sang out. There were moments when I was looking at the sheen off the buttons of a saxophone, or linens on a hospital bed, and I truly forgot I was watching computer generated images. On paper the movie is a hodgepodge that clings to its central theme. Parts of it feel lifted directly from other Pixar films and pasted in, most notably Inside Out and Wreck It Ralph (replace “coin” with “badge” and there’s a scene that’s almost exactly the same). Even that shining climatic moment in most Pixar movies, when the protagonist realizes their sidekick was right and rushes to find them, rang hollow.
I am most happy with the fact that with this film and Coco (one of my favorites from the last decade) Disney and Pixar are taking the right steps in representation of minorities on screen. I know a lot of people loved this movie (one of the staff on this paper threatened, in jest, to kill me if I didn’t like it…) and rightfully so. There’s just something hollow in the contents in Soul that prevents me from going “I NEED to see this again.” Still, as always, I am very much looking forward to the next Pixar production. Though it’s doubtful they can once again break the mold to show something innovative like they have in the past. At least I can expect a few bright laughs and some warm tears; the Pixar standard.