There is a lot going on in Pixar’s Soul, which is somewhat of a problem. It is an ambitious film with existential aspirations which, to an extent, go unfulfilled and weigh things down. The very heart of this film, its soul perhaps, is touching and charming; it is just that there is too much surrounding this, which is a real shame coming from a studio famous for gleaning depth out of conceptual simplicity.
In Soul, we follow Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle-aged middle school teacher – symbols for a purgatorial malaise – who aspires to be a jazz musician. He seeks this with a single mindedness and, at its best, Soul serves as a smart critique of this kind of living. Though, its digressions do stop it from being a clean and enlightening exploration. Joe’s problems start to escalate though as, after securing an important gig with a famous musician, he suddenly dies and is transported to the great beyond – stylised as an escalator that is clearly inspired by A Matter of Life and Death (a comparison which perhaps makes the flaws of this film even more apparent). George is not ready to die, so tries to flee the afterlife and ends up, instead, in the Great Before. This is the space where souls live before they are put into people, where they gain their personalities and discover their raison d’etre. It is an idea that echoes the philosophy of Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality and Plato’s world of the Forms, and much more. These high-brow references indicate the kind of existential ground that is being dealt with – impressive for a family film – and, on a visual level, this world is very well articulated.
In fact, the whole film is articulated beautifully on a visual level. The aesthetic bends and shifts from stylised reality into utter surreality, with sequences mirroring the overwhelming visual impact of the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. In this department, the film is an overwhelming success, scattered with evocative details and beautiful touches. It is a stunning piece of animation and the visual imagination elevates the narrative and conveys the ideas in a much more successful way than the script. The written dialogue is often oddly on the nose, a deviation from director Pete Docter’s previous animation, Inside Out, which so successful navigated text and subtext. The surface of Inside Out was so rich and compelling, and at every point it tied to a deeper metaphor ready to be explored. Soul will evoke thought but a lot of its thinking is on the surface. Things do not as cleverly represent other things, as they do in Inside Out, they just are those things. In a way, its overt ambition in terms of displaying the big questions makes its philosophical scope seem much narrower.
But, there is still more premise to get through. The narrative progresses from the Great Before into a body swap comedy, as our protagonist decides his way back to life is to educate a soul into being human so that he can have their ‘pass’ and return to his body. Once again, it is a lot of information and world detail, and it is all dropped rather matter of factly. The film is full of evocative ideas or concepts but is overstuffed, it loses an emotional resonance because it keeps introducing new strands and complications that get in the way of a more cogent exploration of core ideas. Also, the body swap comedy has some unfortunate connotations that may upset some. There are extra textual connotations involving the controlling of certain bodies by certain perspectives and, though this is not linked to any pernicious intention, it does feel a touch misguided – and could have been easily evaded with more appropriate casting.
When it comes down to it, there is a compelling central message in Soul, a really interesting expression of what it means to be alive. In Pixar’s masterpieces, these great messages feel endemic to the experience; here, it feels like an addendum. A lot of the content does build up to the coda, but a lot of the film’s focus feels like a needless distraction. This lacks the clean premise of the rest of their output and therefore so much of it just feels ancillary. You may be left feeling many things did not have to be a certain way, and even that the penultimate sequence feels superfluous. And, even if the film is still good, and it still works, it could work more cleanly. This is especially pertinent in the shadow of a film like Wolfwalkers, a 2020 animation that is even more visually successful than Soul and so effortlessly threads text and subtext, fantasy and reality – and is a masterpiece.
Soul is a film that looks beautiful and sounds beautiful (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross still showing themselves to be the best in the business – and as having such great range). It also has interesting and challenging ideas, but these ideas are not expressed with clarity and there is quantity over quality. Ironically, though this is a humorous and entertaining Pixar feature, bound to be a hit, it lacks that central spark that their better films have. Put even more simply: it lacks soul.