Review by Eimear Johnson
Soul (Pete Docter, 2020) follows jazz-loving middle school band teacher Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) who, on the cusp of his big break, suddenly finds himself on the verge between life and death. With his soul separated from his body, Joe races to rejoin them and find a way home, as well as teach Soul 22 (Tina Fey) why life is worth living along the way. Pixar’s 23rd feature film explores several thought-provoking elements with style and flair, but fails to deliver on all of them, ironically leaving the viewer feeling a little empty rather than inspired by the beauty of life. While not an instant classic, Soul reinforces Pixar’s reputation as original storytellers and showcases the studios’ talent of pushing the boundaries of animation.
At the centre of Soul lies the rather large question: what is the meaning of life? This bold choice makes Soul one of Pixar’s most ambitious films yet, giving way to incredible creativity although resulting in some storytelling losses. One of the highlights of Soul is in its score; with a rich soundtrack juxtaposing jazz (Jon Batiste) and alternative synth-i-ness (Trent Reznor and Attitcus Ross), Soul is a delight to the ears, as well as a feast for the eyes. Pixar’s animation and attention to detail is so consistent that it is often underappreciated, and in Soul, we once again see the fruits of the animators’ labour. Beautiful lighting, rich character designs, and sweeping camera angles almost make you forget that this is computer-generated film. The film takes advantage of its cerebral subject matter to play with more abstract designs, to great success.
With Foxx and Fey at the helm of this existential vessel, one might expect two personable, charismatic leads. However, neither protagonist is easy to root for (one is essentially cheating death and the other is painfully blasé) and it’s hard to feel anything for them at all, a contributing factor in the underwhelming ending. However, the supporting characters are a true delight, particularly Terry and Moonwind, voiced by Rachel House and Graham Norton, respectively.
The film follows similar beats to previous Pixar hits, particularly Inside Out (another Pete Doctor venture), but fails to deliver such a clear, hard-hitting emotional punch in the third act. Attempting to provide the audience with a concise reason for the meaning of life is a gamble on Soul’s emotional payoff, and it shows; the ending is slightly unsatisfying, and unfortunately, an ambiguous message in this film treads a fine line between profound and an all-consuming existential crisis. Nevertheless, being a Pixar film, the classic nostalgic soft-fade montage crying cue makes an appearance, guaranteeing a few tears. Another original and visually stunning outing from Pixar, Soul proves once and for all that animated films are not just for kids. A great cast and soundtrack help this film hit the familiar Pixar marks, but it falls short at the final hurdle with a less than satisfying ending and an unclear overall message. Nevertheless, Soul teaches us to appreciate the little things in life, which after 2020, is a comforting outlook to bookend the year.