Soul (2020), Pixar’s Delightful Return to Form

Disney sucks. Let’s not split hairs. In my opinion their Studio-produced, profit focused approach to filmmaking is creating a creative stranglehold that can be most prominently seen in their approach to Superhero blockbusters, but has also reared its ugly head in the rest of their creative outlets. But despite this, there has always been a bastion of hope within the Disney system, and that has been Pixar Animation Studios. Historically the most famous subsidiary of Disney, it officially came under the Disney banner in 2006, although I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking it was owned by Disney before then. Now while it would be easy to argue that the quality of all the pre-2006 Pixar films far exceed the quality of all the post-2006 Pixar films, it is notable that despite some pretty lacklustre sequels Pixar has managed to produce new IP’s that incorporate the technological advancements of the company without selling out or compromising the narrative or creative integrity. One of the most consistently interesting directors working within Pixar, for me, is Pete Docter, who has managed to craft new and interesting films, and his most recent directorial effort is no different.

Soul is the story of Joe Gardner, voiced by Jaime Foxx, a part-time music teacher who is trying to pursue his dream of playing jazz professionally, after a successful audition Joe falls down into the sewers and his soul is put on a fast track to the great beyond. As he adventures through the spirit world he eventually becomes a mentor to 22, voiced by Tina Fey, a stubborn soul who has yet to find their “spark” that will allow them to earn a world badge and live on Earth. What seems on the surface like a pretty typical Disney/Pixar storyline of chasing your dreams is subverted into an exploration of life itself, the passions that drive us and the dreams that give our lives meaning, but as it progresses the film also starts to highlight the little joys of life, from the leaves falling in autumn to playing in the mirror. At the start of the film, much like the main character, we are led to believe that it’s chasing the dreams of greatness that give our life meaning, but as the film progresses we see this message develop and expand to a message that the meaning and purpose of life is simply to live and that we should find joy and comfort in the small experiences we have every day. At one point the film pokes fun at this idea by having one of the Jerry’s (who are essentially the entire Universe condescended into a being that humans can understand) mock Joe for thinking that the thing that gives soul’s their spark is their purpose for existing. 

In my opinion this is one of the strongest and arguably most mature thematic underpinning of any Pixar release so far and the way that Pete Docter manages to encapsulate such a broad and powerful message through the medium of a kids film is a testament to its strengths. There are elements like Joe saying at the beginning of the film that he could die happy if he ever got to play alongside Angela Bassett’s Dorethea Williams, only for him to remain unhappy after dying immediately after playing with her are clever breadcrumbs that led fittingly up to the climax of the film where the real message of the film starts to shine through. It’s a testament to strength of the screenplay in my opinion, as while initially I thought the film was awkwardly fragmented that segwayed jarringly into the next location/plot device, but by the end (and on rewatch) I came to realise that everything plays out with a sense of purpose and both narrative and thematic cohesion. This isn’t to say that some of the writing isn’t contrived, which I would argue at times it was, but the shifts between locations allowed for the themes to work well on a wider and yet still intimate scale, offering moments of reflection for the audience as well as a strong narrative for the characters to keep the film engaging.

Visually Soul is, to no-one’s surprise, astonishing. The animation at Pixar has always been at the cutting-edge, with many of their older films holding up remarkable well, but in the 2010’s there was a clear progression of advancements that led to some of the most visually striking animated films ever made, one of my personal favourites being Coco (2017), but Soul really stepped it up a gear. The animation in the human world is a perfect blend of cartoony character designs that look somewhat realistic without being uncanny, and a hyper-realistic detailed rendering of real-world objects. This comes together to create this wonderful balance where Joe Gardener doesn’t look out of place playing a piano that looks like it was taken directly from our world. Meanwhile the soul world is equally as beautiful with these wonderfully conceptual linework, or blending 3D-2D animation (I know that seems like an oxymoron but the aforementioned Jerry beings are 2D lines rendered in the 3D space) with the traditional 3D animation that Pixar have arguably perfected. The environment’s and landscapes in ‘the great before’ look stunning even in their simplicity. The animation cannot be praised without highlighting the tremendous work done by Matt Aspbury and Ian Megibben as the Directors of Photography, because the use of light and colour is incredible. Whether it’s the naturalistic lighting of New York, both the warm tones in the day and the cold contrasting light used in the night-time scenes, or the more out-there lighting choices and techniques in the soul world, the cinematography always enhances the scenes. 

With John Lassetter rightfully removed from the company, and Pete Docter positioned as Chief Creative Officer, Pixar is positioning itself as one of the last bastions of hope within the Disney Umbrella. While we’ve seen a mixed bag since Docter took on the role, Soul represents a leaping off point that I hope the company dives into head-first, it’s a film that captures the passion and spirit of film-making that defined the early Pixar work so wonderfully. With the upcoming slate of Pixar films mostly looking like new voices with fresh IP’s, I just have to hope that Docter isn’t losing his creative spark and is able to foster a plethora of films that rival the emotion and feeling that Soul does.

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