soul review

Soul Review: Oh Look, Pixar Done Good Again

How many reviews have said “this has a real soul to it” or some variation of? Seriously, I want a count.

Outside of the ridiculous standard of quality that Pixar has had throughout the studio’s life, the facet that has impressed me the most is their diversity. While making what can essentially be described as movies for kids, they feature different cultures and tackle some pretty weighty issues in the process. On top of that, almost everything they do is a resounding success. Yes, the Pixar name continues to be huge.

Soul is about a jazz musician named Joe who ends up dying right before he finally gets what he has always wanted–a chance to play piano with a big name. He manages to buck the afterlife system and finds himself in a situation where he ends up mentoring a rebellious soul who is given only a number as a name–22. This time Pixar has turned their gaze towards jazz, the meaning of life and death. So, no big deal obviously.

As soon as the flick begins there’s a humorous riff on the Disney intro; music played awfully by Joe’s classroom of wannabe musicians over the opening animation. It got me and built my expectations to a level even higher than they already are.

Unfortunately, while others may say that the typical Pixar magic emerged from the outset, I don’t believe that is true. After I disconnected from the funny beginning and foundation that the film is erected from, it felt very by the numbers. Which means it was another great Pixar film but not A-tier.

Joe is a sympathetic character and the film was filled with the same kind of life that one would expect from Pixar, specifically Pete Docter (who co-directed and co-wrote this one with Kemp Powers). It was animated with the same trademark, beautiful attention to detail that all Pixar flicks have. It had a couple laughs scattered throughout. But none of that screamed brilliance to me. It was on the level of Outward from earlier this year, which I actually enjoyed quite a bit as well.

soul review

Hope she doesn’t find out I farted.

It was strange to see fears bubbling up to the surface. Mind you, these are fears that any other creator would love to have. Is this movie merely going to be great and not amazing? It’s still one of the better movies of the year but it’s not the best? Oh no!

I can pinpoint the exact moment in which I was ready to relegate this film to an eight out of ten (again, a respectable score): when Joe dies and we first catch a glimpse of Pixar’s vision of the hereafter and the “Great Before,” a place where souls are primed to be given life. It was surprisingly uninspired and bland, a characteristic that I rarely condemn this studio with.

The idea of the “Great Before” is a grand one, but it lacks the creativity that we’ve come to expect. It appears to be a case of conflicting ideals. It’s a place where they produce personalities for budding souls in order to get them onto Earth, but it’s also basically a factory. I understand what they’re pursuing here, but doesn’t that go against some of the message? They’re not making the argument that humans are a blank slate–Steven Pinker would be proud–but they show personality as so dull.

Could I be completely misreading this? Of course. Even if the “Great Before” is only meant to ignite the spark that leads to more, frankly, it’s still boring to look at. I’m almost never bored of the artistic design of the worlds that they create, even if their distinct style is basically recycled from film to film. I really don’t think that something like that should be described as boring, especially when they were free to do whatever they wanted.

I’ve not come around on how they’ve depicted souls or their habitat, but there’s a silver lining herein. This is also the moment where the story finds its spark and blooms into what I wanted from Pixar. While par for the course during a Pixar flick, once Joe begins mentoring 22 under false pretense the narrative becomes both funnier and more emotionally engaging.

soul review

Someone farted.

Docter and Powers opting to employ a Family Guy flashback style periodically with the jokes that come from 22 worked really well. It was a real pleasure seeing snippets of her conversations with renowned historical figures–with my interest in psychology, Carl Jung made me laugh.

Likewise, her rocky relationship with Joe was a highlight. It’s a formula that pops up in a lot of films–two unlikely partners get grouped together and hilarious ensues–but that’s because the formula is fruitful when handled with delicate hands. Yes, you know basically where it’s going to go with them, but that doesn’t mean that the journey isn’t worth the price of admission. Their relationship is kinetic but forms organically.

Everything just clicked. The chaos that gets created once Joe and 22 hatch a plan reminded me of why I love Pixar movies to begin with. The script seemed to really kick it up a notch, but even the animation had new life breathed into it. For example, there’s a particular visual gag with pizza that I laughed so hard at that I rewound it and watched it again. It was such a perfect representation of what makes their movies so comedic when they are on.

Then of course there’s the Pixar gut-punch. You know, the moment in which they decide to make reduce the entire theatre–or in this case in the house, which is less embarrassing–to blubbering idiots. What makes it rewarding is that it makes sense and doesn’t force unnecessary melodrama. Does it stack among the best heart-wrenching moments in Pixar history? I would say no, it doesn’t compare to something like Up or Wall-E, but it’s still really effective.

That’s the story of Soul to me, in a nutshell. It doesn’t stand among the heavyweights–in my eyes that’s Up, Coco, Wall-E and Toy Story, however you may disagree–but it nestles in nicely besides some other films that may not be the absolute mammoths that the aforementioned four are. By the time I compile my “Best of the Year” list this will predictably make it on there somewhere.

He also insists that you watch the short film that accompanies Soul. It’s called Burrow and it’s about a rabbit. It may be his favourite film of the year but he hasn’t decided yet. He’s a very indecisive bun.

This film has real soul to it.



Soul is another fine addition to the Pixar canon. Saying that a Pixar movie is great at this point is redundant but here we are. There are some minor flaws–particular the way that the “Great Beyond” and the “Great Before” are depicted visually, but the heart, humour and wit are still present in the script.

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