⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
As 2021 dawns, it marks just over 25 years since Pixar’s first animated feature – Toy Story (1995). It’s been a rollercoaster since then, as the studio have outdone themselves over and over, the quality of their films growing alongside the fidelity of computer animation. You could argue that Pixar have, in recent years, faltered slightly in their output, suggesting that their heyday has at last come to an end.
If nothing else, Soul proves that Pixar aren’t finished just yet.
Soul can’t easily be explained or even understood. The plot is a strange narrative that kids and adults alike will struggle to fully understand.
Joe, a bored music teacher, dreaming of becoming a big-shot jazz musician, finally gets his big break, only to fall down a manhole and, well, die. His soul – reluctant to leave reality – is trapped in a strange dreamscape where unborn souls are prepared for the struggles of life and discover their future motivation before they can be thrown into the universe. As he attempts to get back to his body, Joe encounters 22, a troublemaker who refuses to engage with the process. It’s ambitious to say the least, and we’re barely a third of the way in.
Story aside, it is the visual and aural style that elevates Soul to something brilliant. The film flits between two distinct – but beautiful – landscapes. Modern-day New York is bursting with incredible detail, stunning lighting effects and sublime colour palette, a testament to the progress made in computer animation.
Joe’s dreamscape – called the “Great Before” – is a chance for Pixar to show off with surreal, wondrous architecture and abstract imagery. Once again, it’s ambitious on a newfound level, and very rewarding to watch.
Music – Joe’s primary motivation in life – is omnipresent throughout Soul, reminiscent of Fantasia (1940) in the way it supports the tone and setting, and it is just so, so, good. The variety of genre and style, the dreamlike beauty ascribed to music, and its relevance to the film’s themes make the score worthy of Pixar’s best.
Soul deserves five stars based on its sights and sounds alone, and it’s great to see the studio continue to innovate after 25 years.
The film is by no means perfect. The story, as bizarre as the Great Before’s landscapes, is tricky to understand at best, and disappointing at worst.
Joe and 22 – voiced excellently by Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey respectively – bounce back and forth between realities and bodies, leaving us with little understanding of the rules dictating what is and isn’t possible in such a crazy scenario. The audience is simply asked to accept what happens, and it ultimately detracts from the film’s interesting themes, which are otherwise conveyed in an intriguing and mature way that while not very subtle, are effective and more complex than might be expected.
There’s also a disconnect between the serious and comedic elements of the film. The Great Before might’ve been a prime opportunity for some classic Pixar satire, allowing them to have fun by suggesting that everyday bureaucracy and mismanagement might extend as far as this mystical dreamscape.
Unfortunately, we get an odd mix of serious and comedic elements that don’t feel cohesive. The comedy otherwise is a slightly under-par offering that, again, doesn’t really work with an often solemn, introspective and moving film.
These criticisms ultimately feel small in the face of Soul’s great achievements. It’s disjointed and abstract, but an immensely ambitious and beautiful film.
The absurdly talented creators at Pixar seem to have produced something innovative and brilliant once again. Despite its flaws, Soul is easily worth the watch.
Illustration: Eve Miller