Soul (2020)Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/24/20 01:26:17
Although it probably ranks relatively low on the list of problems, the simple truth is that 2020 has not been a particularly good or fertile period for animated feature films. Oh sure, there have been smaller efforts like “Marona’s Fantastic Tale” and “Wolfwalkers” that are worth seeking out but for the most part, the major ones that have emerged have been listless affairs like “Trolls World Tour,” “Over the Moon” and “The Croods: A New Age.” Even Pixar stumbled earlier this year with “Onward,” a film that tried a little harder than, say, the Trolls brawl but was a bit of a unsatisfying mess. Now Pixar has returned with their second film of the year, “Soul,” and while it is definitely a step up from “Onward,” it too is kind of a mixed bag. Here is a film that, like the best Pixar films is audacious and ambitious in equal measure—even more so when you consider that it is ostensibly being targeted at families with young children—and contains numerous moments of visual beauty, some big laughs and even leaves viewers of all ages with some things to contemplate about themselves afterwards. And yet, despite all that, it never quite finds a way to bring these elements and its far-reaching ambitious together into a package as dramatically and emotionally satisfying as their best work. This result is not necessarily a bad film, per se, but it never quite manages to be as great, powerful or thought-provoking as it would clearly like to be.“Soul” revolves around Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a talented jazz pianist who teaches band part-time at a Harlem middle school to make ends meet while still yearning for the big break that will allow him to share his gifts to the world. He is so dedicated to this notion that when his school offers him a full-time teaching job—at a time when many schools are slashing funding for arts programs or eliminating them entirely—he regards accepting it as a death sentence for his dreams. In an incredible turn of events, he gets his big break when he is offered a chance to audition for a spot in an acclaimed jazz quartet led by the legendary Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). As he plays for her, we can literally see him being transformed by the music and entering “the zone,” a place found deep inside us all where, at least in his case, the music literally comes alive for him. Needless to say, he passes the audition and is practically walking on air as he waits for his first official gig with the group that night and it is at this point that Joe plunges through an open manhole cover and dies. (For those of you concerned that I have said too much, all of this occurs within the first fifteen minutes or so.)
Of course, Joe is not one to let a little thing like death stand in the way of finally achieving his dreams and when he, now rendered as a sort of blue-green blob (though still sporting glasses and a fedora), finds himself on a stairway ascending to the Great Beyond, he tries to escape and winds up in a place called, perhaps inevitably, the Great Before, where unborn souls gather to develop their personalities so that they can become fully human. Much of this revolves around finding their “spark”—that one unique thing that truly drives people and makes them who they are. Pretending to be the spirit of a famed child psychologist to avoid detection, Joe is put in charge of 22 (Tina Fey), a petulant pre-soul who refuses to cooperate, has no interest in discovering her spark and definitely does not want to be born into a human. This attitude has defeated any number of those who have tried to help 22 in the past (some of the biggest laughs in the film come from learning the identities of some of the previous would-be mentors) It is here that I will stop discussing any plot particulars as this is the point where the film goes off in areas that are not hinted at in the ads.
“Soul” starts off on such a high note—no pun intended—that I found myself thinking that this could be one of Pixar’s finest works to date. The opening scenes nicely set Joe’s conflict between following his dream, no matter how fleeting and unreliable it might be, and settling down for something safer and more conventional. When he gets to his audition, the sequence in which Joe goes into the zone is a thing of real beauty—the fusion of the gorgeous visuals and the music (performed by Jon Batiste) is so impassioned and inspired that the sequence deserves comparison to any of the segments from Disney’s musical masterwork “Fantasia.” Once the scene shifts to the afterlife, the results are stunning from a visual standpoint and the premise, as it evolves, certainly sounds intriguing enough. The film was directed and co-written by Pete Doctor, who has been behind some of Pixar’s most creatively ambitious and artistically satisfying films—“Monsters, Inc” (2001), “Up” (2009) and “Inside Out” (2015) among them—and his work in these early scenes is as good as anything that he has done before.
As it turns out, it is at this point that “Soul” begins to lose its way. For starters, while the story does, as I mentioned, go off in ways not really hinted at in the advertising, where it goes at that point is ultimately not nearly as interesting as where it had been. Without going into detail, the narrative becomes a much lumpier affair as different planes of existence are introduced that seem more concerned with covering as many aspects of the spiritual waterfront as they can than they are in explaining themselves and certain plot developments—specifically the one in which Joe wind up in a pair of bodies—simply do not make a lot of sense, not even if you are willing to wholeheartedly embrace the film’s stance on the pre/afterlife and the nature/meaning of the soul.
If these were the only problems, then I suppose that “Soul” would at least deserve some credit for having the good taste to have its flaws come from its ambitions instead of being the result of laziness. The problem is that it also suffers from a somewhat flawed execution as well. Part of the genius of the best Pixar films has been how they have taken undeniably deep and complex topics—ranging from death (“Coco”) to depression (“Inside Out”) to the need for artistic expression (“Ratatouille”)—and conceived stories around them that managed to lay them out for younger viewers in a smart, entertaining and non-condescending manner that they could easily grasp that also managed to come across as highly entertaining to boot. That kind of narrative clarity is in short supply here, so much so, in fact, that even towards the end, the film doesn’t seem to have a clear idea of what it is ultimately trying to say. And while Joe is a likable enough character in theory, he doesn’t really work as the conduit to help younger viewers grasp the film’s weightier themes and concepts—my guess is that most kids are probably not going to relate too much to a middle-aged jazz musician in the midst of a mid-life crisis.“Soul” is not a misfire by any means—it looks great throughout, the jazz-tinged soundtrack by, of all people, the duo of Trent Reznor and Atticus Rose, is quite strong and there are a number of funny moments throughout, many of them supplied by Fey’s pitch-perfect take on 22. It just lacks that final burst of inspiration—some might call it a “spark”—that would have pulled all of its ideas and ambitions into a final form that was truly worthy of them. While it did not quite work for me, I wouldn’t necessarily advise against seeing it—again, it beats stuff like “The Croods” like a gong—and I suspect that this might be one of those movies that plays better on a second viewing. I may even give it another look at some point to see if I find myself feeling more favorably towards it and I genuinely hope that I do. In the end, it may be a miss but to its credit, at least it is the nearest of misses imaginable.
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