After a decidedly tough year, Pixar gifted the world with its latest creation in December 2020, after being delayed due to the pandemic that just about delayed everything else. The film has received rave reviews from audiences, but somewhat less unanimous opinions from critics. Whether you find it as excellent as most viewers do, or…slightly less so, Pixar’s Soul a must-see after the roller coaster year we all had in 2020. Caution, minor spoilers ahead.
Pixar’s Soul follows Joe Gardner, a middle school music teacher, as he chases his dreams of becoming a jazz musician. These dreams are, unfortunately, cut short when he dies on his way to prepare for the show that he’s sure will be his big break. Joe finds himself as a disembodied soul, journeying to the great beyond – somewhat unwillingly. In his attempts to escape and return to the physical world, he accidentally ends up in the body of a tubby and adorable therapy cat, with another, rookie soul – one who’s never been to earth and doesn’t want to be there – poorly steering his body.
What ensues are multiple opportunities for some animated, slapstick hilarity, character growth, and a few scenes that could be considered visual odes to the olfactory magic that is pizza.
First, the film’s strengths – as there are many of them.
Soul‘s handling of an incredibly heavy topic can be commended. The comedy and sweetness with which the entire topic of death and finding one’s raison d’etre are flavoured with that typical Pixar magic, loved by children and adults alike. The film is a great one to watch as a family, with humour and visuals that will appeal to everyone.
The design of the characters in the after life are particularly striking, resembling some kind of hybrid between cubist paintings and neon signs, and they make for a highly memorable viewing experience. The soundtrack too, performs beautifully, tying together the film’s title and its leading character’s love of jazz in a nice musical ribbon.
Matt Zoller Seits, in his review, describes the film as “pleasant and clever, with a generous heart, committed voice acting, and some of the kookiest images in Pixar history”, and with all of these I completely agree. The dialogue is witty, and scenes of Joe “in the zone” as he performs are particularly lovely and relatable to anyone who’s ever picked up a musical instrument
Furthermore, Soul represents black characters and their cultural context more than any Pixar film before it, making it something of a historical event and a step in the right direction. According to Zoller Seitz, “In a flashback, Joe’s dad, who introduced him to jazz, describes the music as one of the greatest African-American contributions to world culture. There are many other touches in the film that testify to the story’s anchoring in an experience beyond the white, middle-class suburban norms that Pixar embraces by default”.
The film’s downsides, though, are almost as numerous as its strengths – although fewer of the movie’s audience members have seemed agreed on them.
One shortcoming, according to Zoller Seitz, is that Soul becomes just “another of a string of animated films (including “The Princess and the Frog” and “Spies in Disguise“) in which a rare Black leading character is transformed into something else for the majority of a film’s running time”.
Kirsten Acuna , in her review, echoes this, and also criticises the message she believes Pixar’s Soul sends to its younger audience. “Joe is killed the moment he gets his big break,” she writes, “within the first 10 minutes of the film. What kind of message does that send to young children watching this film who see themselves in Joe?”
She adds that “It doesn’t help that “Soul” nearly became a white-savior movie…Hearing [Tina Fey’s voice] ‘trapped’ in Foxx’s animated body just felt insensitive, especially after this year.”
While myself, and many other viewers, thoroughly enjoyed the creative depiction of the Great Beyond and the Great Before, Stephanie Zacharek, reviewing the film for Time, adds that the philosophy of death may have been a bit too much.”Soul could have been a work of great joy if it weren’t pedaling so hard to answer unanswerable questions about what happens to us when we die, and what shapes our personalities in the first place”, she writes.
Criticisms aside, I found this film to be quite unique and undeniably charming. Ultimately, the film’s message of hope and of appreciating life for all the little moments that pass while one chases one’s “spark” does make it worth watching, even if some of the racial dynamics leave you cringing.
Keep in mind that if you’re watching Pixar’s Soul with your kids, you may have to have some discussions about death and the meaning of life afterward, and you may want to prepare for those. You won’t however, have wasted hours of your life on a movie that isn’t worth it if you do choose to watch this one.
Pixar’s Soul is now available to stream on Disney+.