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Non-Review Review: Soul

Soul is ambitious and well-crafted.

If Onward had been positioned as the populist Pixar film this year, then Soul is a counterproint. It is a prestige piece for the company, something similar to Inside Out or Wall-E. After all, Soul is the latest project from Pete Docter. Docter has been part of the Pixar brain trust since its earliest days, even working on the stories for Toy Story and Toy Story 2. However, Docter’s most recent high-profile work has been his scripting and directing duties on Up and Inside Out, two Pixar films to have been nominated for Best Picture and to win Best Animated Feature.

The afterlife and all that jazz.

The premise of Soul is suitably abstract. Joe Gardner is a music teacher who always dreamed of being a successful stage musician. One day, a former student gets in contact with him, offering a gig with jazz legend Dorethea Williams. Joe manages to land the gig, and is convinced that his fortunes are about to change for good. Naturally, dramatic irony strikes, and Joe finds himself sent to the afterlife. Refusing to accept that his life is over, Joe commits to doing whatever it takes to get back to Earth and live his dream. “I’m not dying today,” he vows. “Not when my life just started.”

Soul deals with very big ideas in a remarkably clever way. The film creates a compelling and fascinating imaginary world that recalls both Riley’s internal life from Inside Out and even the afterlife depicted in Coco. Docter also uses the story as a meditation on weighty subject matter like death, dreams and disillusionment. It’s bold and striking, and the film largely works as a showcase for the company’s imagination. However, Soul does stumble slightly in its final act, pulling its punches ever so slightly as the film reaches its denouement.

There is a lot to like in Soul, even on a purely technical level. The animation is striking, which is easy to take for granted, but which remains a large part of what makes Pixar so striking. There’s a tendency to fixate on the company’s understanding and construction of narratives, but the animation itself is breathtaking. This is particularly notable in movies like Inside Out or Soul, where the animators are effectively tasked with realising abstract concepts.

Indeed, Soul is packed with breathtaking visuals that neatly compliment and sharp and funny script. This is most striking when it comes to the depiction of the life “beyond” the mortal world. Naturally, Joe’s journey beyond his mortal coil inevitably brings him into contact with a somewhat traditional afterlife, but also into the realm known as the “Great Before”, the space in which souls are prepared for their adventures in the world of the living.

Soul concern.

The visuals in this imaginary world are stunning and creative, demonstrating the joy that Pixar bring to their work. This is perhaps most obvious with the representation of the entities that oversee these realms, “soul counselors” with names like Jerry and Terry who seem to exist as surprisingly expressive two-dimensional doodles moving through otherwise fully realised three-dimensional space. They are beautiful to look at, with Pixar very cleverly juxtaposing their abstract and alien appearance with a decidedly more mundane and bureaucratic personality.

Indeed, the film’s breakout character might be a “soul counter” named Terry, who figures out that Joe is trying to cheat his way back to Earth. Operating a complicated series of abaci to track the migration of souls, Terry figures out that “the count’s wrong.” Brought to life by a fantastic performance from Rachel House, Soul presents Terry as an arch-bureaucrat, something reflected even in the creature’s physicality. Terry can move around in strange and uncanny ways, but only seems capable of moving in straight lines and navigating existing grids or frameworks.

No accounting for taste.

Even just visually, Soul is a delight. It is fun to spend time with these characters in this world. Docter and his team populate this space with a delightful array of incongruous figures, from monstrous “lost souls” that wander through vast spiritual wastelands to spiritual gurus who are capable of navigating the spiritual plane while listening to Bob Dylan in a bright pink pirate ship. Soul breezes through these sorts of images with impressive speed, meaning that there is always something new and interesting to discover.

Traditionally, Pixar films exist on a continuum, between affectionate genre adventure films and more prestigious abstract fare. This is not a clear binary, even if some movies tend to push towards one extreme or the other; Cars and A Bug’s Life tend more towards familiar genre tropes, while films like Inside Out and Wall-E tend more towards the abstract. More often than not, Pixar combine these elements. Toy Story 3 is a prison-break movie that is also a profound meditation on growing up. Up is a story of loss and regret, but also an old-fashioned exploration adventure.

He works best as a Soul-o artist.

Soul tries to balance those extremes, trying to ground a very high concept in a relatable genre mechanic. Indeed, Soul breezes through three fairly different genre set-ups, effectively rebooting itself at each act transition. It seems safe to say that Soul branches out in some interesting and unconventional directions as Joe tries to find his way back to the world of the living, and the movie works hard to avoid remaining stationary for too long at any given moment.

There is, perhaps, some small frustration in this. It often feels like Soul could spend just a little more time on some of its ideas before breezing by them to reach for the next set of concepts. The movie is perhaps a little too nimble on its feet, a little too eager to swap out one big premise for another, trusting that the audience will follow along. Pixar is good enough at storytelling to make these transitions much smoother than one might expect – even trying to summarise them would suggest a much more disjointed film. However, Soul feels a little too restless in places.

Heaven can’t hardly wait.

That said, Soul is constructed well enough that this is never really a problem. What is happening on screen is always interesting and fun to keep the audience engaged, even when they veer a little bit too much towards established genre tropes. More than that, Soul wrestles with big questions in interesting ways. In particular, the film offers some interesting nuance to its portrayal of Joe as a man who has pursued his own dream with a single-minded fixation that has perhaps cut him off from others.

It helps that the casting is excellent. Soul relies on the odd couple pairing of Jamie Foxx as Joe with Tina Fey as the as-yet-unbirthed soul 22, who becomes embroiled in Joe’s fiendish plans to get back to Earth. Foxx and Fey are a strange duo, but they work remarkably well together. Foxx is Oscar-winning actor with a keen sense of comic timing, while Fey is a comedian who is also capable of rendering characters with a surprising amount of emotional complexity. The pair work well together, and anchor Soul during some of its sharper tonal shifts.

Young souls.

Indeed, like a lot of Pixar films, Soul grapples with complicated ideas within the framework of an animated family film. As ever, Pixar layer the story to add nuance and depth that would be missing from more conventional takes on similar subject matter. In particular, Soul deserves a lot of credit for its handling of Joe’s obsession with realising his own dream, acknowledging the importance of Joe’s fulfillment while also conceding that such a pursuit is not necessarily the be-all and end-all of a human existence nor a panacea for some deeper existential unrest.

That said, Soul does stumble somewhat in its final act. The movie builds to a big emotional climax that completes these characters’ journeys in a way that feels satisfying, but it ultimately pulls its punches and refuses to follow some of its bolder and more interesting ideas to their logic conclusion. There’s a certain uncomfortable tidiness to the way in which Soul wraps itself up once the dust has settled, as if the movie is worried about potentially upsetting audience members – whether children or their parents.

Working flat out.

It is perhaps a necessary compromise for a film like this, but it still feels like a compromise. Soul lines up a gut-punch of an ending, but pulls back at the last possible moment for something much more reassuring and safe. It is a shame, because this creative choice ultimately holds Soul back. It prevents the film from feeling like the very best entries in the Pixar canon, those films that actually pushed the audience into places that could have been alienating and upsetting, but were ultimately necessary to underscore the points the films were making.

Still, there’s a lot to like in Soul. To stretch the film’s musical metaphor, Soul often feels like a minor work in a major key.

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