'Soul' Film Review: Pixar's Tender Yuletide Offering
2020 is almost at an end and we're all feeling a little drained by it, so I'm gonna start this review by immediately addressing the awkward elephant in the room: Soul offers audiences yet another animated adventure in which their Black protagonist transforms into a non-human for most of the film. This trope isn't new, especially not within the House of Mouse; Princess Tiana, Disney Animation's first Black princess, was swiftly transformed into a frog despite the promise of representation. Spies in Disguise (2019) followed a similar path to The Princess and the Frog (2009). Debuting at the height of the 'Black James Bond' discourse, Disguise saw Will Smith's Black super-spy character turned into a pigeon (yes, a pigeon) for most of the runtime of the film.
It's frustrating to see Pixar, a studio normally faultless in its presentation, fall into the same trap with their first Black-led feature film - the only solace I can offer is that the lead character's Blackness is depicted with the utmost warmth and richness while he's human. Indeed, a lot of effort has clearly been made by Pixar to accurately depict the diaspora on-screen. Wreck-It Ralph 2 (2018) came under fire when the aforementioned Princess Tiana made a cameo; compared to her hand-drawn counterpart, the character seemed lighter skinned with straighter hair and greener eyes, disappointing dark skinned audiences. But Soul's Black characters stand firm in their own Blackness, with kinky hair, African American musical culture and even Black barbershops all taking center-stage. These conflicting sentiments epitomize Soul''s main issue - one that sees it stuck on the brink of fully satisfying its audience; the film is charming and tender, palpably so, but isn't quite the home run we've come to expect from Disney Pixar.
Let's dig into the film's narrative, though, because there is a lot to be loved here. The film centers on Jamie Foxx's Joe Gardner, a high-school music teacher with dreams of hitting the big time. The title of the film is partly a reference to the character's heartfelt love of the African American music scene - his father notes in a flashback that Black improvisational music is the community's "greatest contribution to American culture." About ten minutes into the film, though, Joe dies - and he does so hours before a gig which could change his life. This, then, is where the character is reduced to a little blue blob (his soul) and must work out how to get back to his body. Along the way Joe finds himself teaming up with a stubborn soul who's yet to be born (voiced by Tina Fey) and together they hope to unpack the very meaning of life itself...
It's a pretty grand mission statement, and I think the film's commitment to fulfilling it ironically stunts its own potential. Without providing narrative spoilers, Soul ultimately proclaims that life doesn't find its 'spark' in your accomplishments or moral purpose, but from the electric lucidity of the mundane everyday. Put bluntly: it's the little things that matter, and we're advised not to ignore them while we're chasing grander goals. While it's certainly a beautiful message, and an important one to convey in 2020, I'd suggest that it's these important 'little things' that got lost in the production of Soul. The characters in this film are all charming and sweet, but I'll admit I had to google the main character's name for the purposes of writing this review - I'd completely forgotten it.
I also think Soul fails to characterize abstract concepts with the success of director Pete Docter's previous film, Inside Out (2017). That film famously found success in characterizing a variety of human emotions, and the surprising nuance afforded to those characters gave the movie its Oscar-winning magic. In Soul, abstract concepts like 'The Great Beyond', the 'You Seminar' and even 'The Great Before' are cool and compelling, but their lack of sufficient grounding left me wanting more and, to be honest, a tiny bit unsatisfied. Rather than being an inter-dimensional space full of wonder and limitless potential, Soul's 'other realm' feels bland, clinical and frankly uninspired. Perhaps it doesn't help that everything is just...blue - it's all just a little one-note.
As tends to be the case with my reviews as of late, I'm being admittedly harsh. Soul is a really good film and it took me quite a while to figure out what exactly I felt was missing. It doesn't rip your heart out in the way Pixar's output tends to do, but the film felt special and offered some necessary reminders in a year that's put us all in a spin. It's also worth mentioning that much of this film was made by animators stuck in quarantine, and not in a socially collaborative environment. Perhaps this is why the film feels a tad smaller than it should be. If so, we should adopt a glass-half-full approach - to release a film like this under such conditions is a genuinely staggering feat.
Of course, the film is occupying a business model that we'll all become much more familiar with in 2021; released on Disney+ at no extra cost (unlike Mulan), Soul finds itself setting multiple 'firsts' in the global cinematic landscape. While this covid-induced release model is concerning for the future of the cinema, I have no doubt that those at home yearning for a new filmic experience should find Soul very pleasing indeed. Even though I wish this film offered audiences as much 'body' as it does 'soul', I can wholeheartedly recommend Pixar's latest venture to anyone looking for a tender winter flick.
Written by James Green