Pixar films have been a bit dangerous in the last few years. By which I mean, they have been steadily getting more and more existential and they make me sad. Inside Out is one of the best discussions about mental health that I’ve ever seen. Coco explored the concept of death in such a moving and human way. These are the kind of films that I wish had been around when I was a kid. Maybe I’d have grown up to be a slightly more well-adjusted adult. Not much obviously. Pixar are great but they can’t perform fucking miracles! Considering the studio has something of a habit of making me cry, I was especially concerned about their latest film but I also knew that I couldn’t miss it. Even the poster was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. How could I not watch the whole thing?
I’ve spent much of my adult life worrying that I’ve wasted time that I’ll never be able to get back. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve stayed awake at night convinced that I should have made a different decision years ago or put more effort into certain aspects of my life. This anxiety has only increased in 2020 when getting on with things was made even more difficult. So, maybe watching a film that explores the meaning of life and not taking it for granted was always going to hit home quite hard. And I admit, it left me a little deflated by the time the credits started. I’m a classic Joe Gardner, the wannabe jazz pianist voiced by Jamie Foxx.
Despite having spent years dreaming of making it as a musician, Joe is working as a high school music teacher. He’s unfulfilled and desperate. So, when he gets the chance to play with one of his musical heroes, Dorothea Williams, Joe knows that it might be his only shot at hitting the big time. Unfortunately, Joe has a nasty accident and wakes up in the Great Beyond. Unwilling to accept his fate, the desperate man escapes and ends up in the Great Before, the place where unborn souls prepare themselves for their human lives. Joe ends up masquerading as a mentor to 22, a cynical soul who still needs to find her spark. She has been branded a hopeless case and has been stuck in the Great Before for millennia. Could 22 be the key to getting Joe back into his body?
What makes this film so mesmerising is the juxtaposition between the real world and the ethereal realm. The way that the Great Before has been designed is incredible. The counsellors look as though they’ve been lifted straight out of a Picasso painting and turned into a neon sign. One of them is voiced by Richard Ayoade and it’s perfect. Then there’s the bureaucratic side that sees the bean counters keeping check on every soul that moves on. It’s an odd, beautiful and ever so slightly familiar place. It’s funny but logical. Then there’s the human world which feels so realistic and well rendered. We know that Pixar knows how to deliver on the visuals but there is some exquisite work on show here. The lighting is fantastic and both realms are crammed with texture. This is perfect for a film that is all about celebrating life.
Despite all of the visual success, Soul doesn’t quite feel like Pixar at its best. The story is full of interesting ideas and big topics but it just feels like something is missing. The emotional journey doesn’t feel as emotional as their other films. It never feels as if there is ever a great deal at stake because you don’t really get to know Joe before he dies. There are so many different strands working together but they don’t quite tie up properly. I was convinced that this film would make me cry huge, ugly tears but this was a mostly dry-eyed experience. Something that is a massive shame because the overall message is definitely on point and I think the characters had great potential. There are some definite magic moments during the film but it doesn’t quite do the message justice. Maybe it was too big a topic to tackle?