- by Jeff Beck
Soul: A Pixar Effort That Falls Just Short of Greatness
Pixar has never been a studio to shy away from difficult subjects. From finding one's place in the world and exploring relationships to growing up and delving into how emotions shape who we are, they have delivered a multitude of powerful, brilliant films for the entire family that have continued to resonate over the course of 25 years. A few months ago they already unleashed the excellent "Onward," which dealt with a pair of brothers trying to reconnect with their father, but they've decided to give us a double helping this year by also releasing "Soul," which deals with perhaps their most difficult subject matter yet: death, the afterlife, and what it truly means to be alive.
"Soul" tells the story of Joe (Voice of Jamie Foxx), a middle school band teacher and a jazz pianist waiting for his big breakthrough. He's been offered a full-time position at the school, much to the delight of his family, but he still dreams of being on the stage, fulfilling what he feels to be his true purpose in life. Out of the blue, he receives a call from a former student of his, offering him the chance to be in a jazz quartet headed by Dorothea Williams (Voice of Angela Bassett), a well-known saxophone player. He immediately agrees to the gig, but in all his excitement, he accidentally steps through an open manhole and eventually finds himself in the "Great Pre-Beyond," where souls are given personalities and mentors are assigned proteges. In an effort to get back to his body and his gig, he takes a troubled soul called "22" (Voice of Tina Fey) under his wing. However, he soon finds that 22 is a lot to handle and that getting back isn't going to be as easy as he hoped.
"Soul" certainly does tackle some very heavy subjects, including finding your life's purpose and fulfilling your life-long dreams, along with examining the very nature of souls, and for the most part, the film handles these in the same skilled manner you'd expect from the studio that brought you so many timeless classics. The first third of the film in particular is a fascinating journey, exploring the Great Pre-Beyond as Joe attempts to find a way back to his body on Earth, and giving the film the time to discuss what goes into making a complete soul (personality, a "spark," etc.). Additionally, it allows for reflection and a fascinating glimpse into where people go when their soul is truly at piece (or "in the zone").
Indeed, the first part of the film is truly remarkable as it delves into its deep themes with a fascinating approach. However, this is what makes the second part of the film stand out as a somewhat awkward addition. The middle portion becomes a strange, wacky adventure that, without going into too much detail, continues to show us Joe's quest to get back home, but it becomes rather different tonally and, in a way, almost feels like it belongs in a different film. It does eventually cover an important part of the story, but it doesn't quite match the quality of what had come before (and what follows), and feels like it could've been handled a little better.
That being said, the film does end on a rather strong note as it heads into the grand finale, touching once more on all of its major themes and playing directly on your heartstrings as Pixar films always tend to do. The film is ultimately a celebration of life through the exploration of the great unknown, and that's where it ends up having its greatest success. The first act was a great start, acting as an introduction to the film's purpose, with the final piece of the film bringing it full circle as it puts it all together.
The clunky middle portion is what makes it a somewhat difficult film to judge overall. Looking at the film as a whole, it teeters between being good and great, with the great portions being of typical excellent Pixar quality and the good portions being surprisingly average. In the end, I'm compelled to say that it's a very good film that's so close to being great. If they had done a little more with the middling middle piece of the film, this could have been something really special, but sadly it has to settle for falling a little too short of the quality of its magnificent brethren (such as "Up," "Ratatouille," "Toy Story," and Pixar's greatest masterpiece, "Inside Out"). What we're left with is still a pretty good film from a studio known for their outstanding quality, and while it may not hit the heights we're used to, it still shines more often than not.
Starts streaming on Disney+ on December 25th.
Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.