There are some movies you have to watch multiple times to understand them: to digest the imagery, the characters, the themes, and ideas because there’s so much to take in. Disney and Pixar’s Soul is definitely one of those movies.
And after watching it for a second time, it still didn’t resonate with me. It didn’t make me cry or think about existentialism. It just kind of felt like a lot of Pixar concepts that have already been done mashed up together into something that tried to target adults, but failed.
A movie about a soul unwilling to accept their death and another soul unwilling to accept life should have been a compelling story – but it gets muddled with all the other ideas it tries to explore: the concept of passion, obsession, legacy, what makes life worth living and of course, there’s the whole problematic aspect of having the studio’s first Black character present as either a blobby soul or a cat for the majority of the movie.
There’s too much going on in Soul for the utter simplicity of its message to really shine through and make an impact. And I hate the fact that I don’t like this movie and that I can see a million different ways it could be better.
What makes the best Pixar movies are the simplicity of them: this film is too convoluted for its own good.
In the film, middle-school band teacher Joe Gardner longs for something bigger. One day, he gets the chance to audition for the Dorothea Williams quartet, his life’s dream. However, mere minutes after getting the gig he falls down an open manhole and dies.
All I could think about was that one line about comedy and tragedy from Mel Brooks. I wonder if it was a reference – because it certainly was funny. But I don’t get how when he wakes up, he doesn’t seem injured at all.
But either way, Joe refuses to accept his fate in the Great Beyond and then finds himself mistaken as a mentor for new souls in the Great Before.
He is assigned to 22 – a soul that still hasn’t found her ‘spark,’ even after thousands of years. And she doesn’t have a vested interest in doing so, since she doesn’t see what’s so great about Earth.
Joe convinces the soul to find her spark, so he can take her Earth pass and live the rest of his life. And then she doesn’t have to get born. It’s a win-win situation.
Unfortunately, things don’t go according to plan: 22 ends up in his body while Joe…ends up in a cat. Together the odd couple must find 22’s spark, how to get back into their right bodies (or lack of) before Joe’s gig.
It’s a Pixar film – so obviously, there are a lot of good things. There’s a lot I like and even love about this film.
I love the different animation styles that get used throughout the film and the juxtaposition between the light, pastel colors, and simple shapes of the Great Before with the bright, busyness, and more realistic looking streets of New York.
They make New York City, look and feel like New York, right down to the pizza there being a life-changing revelation. Obviously, somebody still wants to make more Ratatouille movies because there is a LOT of focus on food in this film.
I also like the Great Beyond and how its mystery and grandness are presented simply, and I like how Joe’s form changes when he travels between the layers of existence. All of the visuals are amazing.
There is a great diversity in character design. Everybody on Earth has different shapes, are different sizes, and have varying skin tones. They’re all very distinct, but not necessarily realistic – they have a nice cartooniness to them still. It’s nice to see a change from the round and big-eyed faces of the past few animated humans in Pixar productions.
The music, of course, is also great.
I don’t know a lot about jazz – but I liked it in this film. They really tried to show how passionate Joe is about the topic. It was great seeing what he was like “in the zone,” and how he let himself get lost in the music, It’s a very different way of portraying the love of playing music in Coco, and it’s nice to have that comparison.
I like the idea of the movie’s message which is that your ‘spark’ is what makes your life worth living, and it doesn’t have to be your life’s focus or purpose. It’s part of what makes you want to live.
Joe was so lost in trying to get a gig as a musician – that he missed out on all the little pleasures of life. Like pizza and having a nice chat with his barber. But the film seems to hint at – that teaching, seemed to also bring him joy and that was his purpose.
Sure, it’s hinted at with his former student Curly and with his current protégé Connie – but it feels so unexplored in the film. And that makes this point gets lost. Which is frustrating to me.
I think we could really use a movie about how important good teachers or mentors are – and that could have been a much more solid focus for the film.
And it wouldn’t have to be cliché either.
But the movie is what is.
Soul has a lot of complex ideas that it wants to explore – to the point that it feels like there are two or three concepts shoved into a single film. And some of the ideas are a bit derivative of older Pixar movies.
22 and Joe don’t have a very engaging dynamic. 22 is a bit too one-note and her character doesn’t get explored a whole lot. She doesn’t get a real character arc or anything like that.
We find out she doesn’t want to go to Earth but at the same time, she keeps failing, for reasons that are beyond her.
Those reasons don’t get explored. Is she supposed to represent somebody with depression? A learning disability? Does she say she doesn’t want to go to Earth to cover up for not being able to find her Spark or is there something more as to why she doesn’t want to go?
Is the fact that she only found her spark once she was in the right environment a signal that something is wrong with how the You Seminar works? Why does 22 end up as a lost soul, and not Joe who is so focused on getting the perfect gig that he forgot to live?
In many ways, the two are too similar in personality that they don’t bounce well off each other. Sure their goals are the exact opposite – but they’re both pretty misanthropic.
I’m just not given enough material to care about 22 – and to be frank, I didn’t care all that much for Joe either.
The film tries to present him as being in the wrong – and I think his original idea of stealing an Earth Pass from a random soul was shitty (since there’s no way to tell if they can get a new one) and that he needs somebody to teach him.
If we had gotten to know Joe better before he died -which happens nine minutes into the movie and was all spent on how he doesn’t like teaching- I probably would have been rooting for him more. Give me something more to this character than just – a man is sad because he can’t get a gig.
The film also brings up Joe’s deceased father several times – and it ends up that his dad put all the rest of his life on hold to try and become a musician. Joe never realized how much his mother had to work to support the dream – and is trying to copy his dad. Without a safety net.
But his dad is just a story, not a real character or even a huge driving force in Joe’s dream (at least the way it’s presented within the film.) It feels like a missed opportunity.
I know that a movie focusing on Joe and his dad may seem similar to Coco in some ways – but its core meaning and themes would be very, very different. Because in this case – Joe gets a second chance at life during the movie, with his father trying to guide him rather than him being the emotional support of a random ghost who sounds like a Karen.
And there would be no weird character of color that gets transformed into a non-human entity present.
Because not only is that over-done, it’s weird that both Pixar movies featuring a POC in the lead role have them die.
That is weird, right? Right?!
In no way, am I the most qualified person to talk about this and this is a highly complicated topic. So don’t take my word as the final say.
So instead, let’s talk about ‘coding.’ That’s when a character, usually a non-human, is meant to be thought of as a particular racial or religious group via certain facial features, accent, and backstory. There’s usually some stereotyping – though it’s not necessarily negative.
It’s how we “know” if Garnet from Steven Universe was human, she’d be a black woman. Her hair is basically an Afro, she is voiced by the Black singer Estelle, and her skint one is similar to African-American characters on the show.
So even though 22 can sound however she wants, the fact she’s voiced by the very white Tina Fey, codes her as a white woman. This is also why I’m using she/her pronouns, for 22.
And having a white woman take over a Black man’s body can have some weird implications. I mean, there was a whole horror movie about this exact idea.
Some Black reviewers have pointed out that Joe’s story gets overtaken by 22, and he mainly functions as her emotional support while she performs Blackness better than him (like in the barbershop scene.) I can’t attest to this personally and I know not all Black reviewers agree. But I feel I should point it out as well.
I think it’s important that Pixar’s first movie about a Black character focuses on the Black character. Jazz music is something that is part of Black culture and having Joe reconnect with it or find a new way to appreciate it would help affirm his identity more within the text.
Kids deserve to see themselves portrayed on screen – positively. And kids deserve to see all kinds of people on screen portrayed in non-stereotyping or insulting ways.
Part of the issue, probably most of the issue, comes from the fact that it was mostly white people involved in the production.
And look, Pete Docter is probably the best and most consistent Pixar director, but he still isn’t a Black man and doesn’t understand that experience. The issue is – the only Black person involved at the high level of production was Kemp Powers – the co-writer of the film.
But at least we’re getting somewhere, but we should have been here a long time ago. I would love for Pixar to do a film about an explicitly Jewish character, whose religion plays a role in the story, but I wouldn’t want that story being told by a non-Jew.
There’s a lot of nuance and ideas they’d miss and their own biases seep into the story whether they knew it or not. All studios should strive to direct diverse movies, but they also need a production crew to add more voices and let movies with minority leads be directed by people of that same group.
With Soul, more involvement from Black writers, producers and directors would have improved the film exponentially – and would have narrowed the focus more. The experience wouldn’t feel so jumbled because they wouldn’t have decided to make the main character Black when they had the rest of the film planned out.
How to improve the film
I think simplifying the movie would have been best. Keep it either to the Great Before or the Streets of New York.
A whole film focusing on the Great Before could have been a nice contrast to Coco. Or a movie focusing on Joe trying to live up to his father’s legacy – and having his father come back to convince him to slow down a bit. It would be Cat’s in the Cradle tale, with him trying to warn him not to repeat the same mistakes – which also would have made Joe’s connection to “Black improvisational music,” his heritage all that more significant.
Soul could have been a film about racial identity. Or even just a film about accepting death – that it comes for us all eventually.
Though admittedly that last one might be a bit TOO dark for a Pixar film.
But the one way to improve the film? Don’t have Joe turn into a cat. And give him a time limit or make Terry more of a threat, and he only has a short time to live out his second chance. And there can still be “Earth passes,” but there’s also “Death passes,” 22 swaps her badge with the deceased Joe (because he was there) and accidentally ends up in the cat’s body. And as the cat, 22 recognizes the joys of Earth and how much life means to those living it.
22 here gets more characterization because she thinks she’s doing a good thing but giving this schmuck a second chance – but it backfires. After Terry appears the first time, 22 runs away.
Needing to get 22 back, Joe has to chase her down the streets of New York which allows him to rediscover the joys he had missed. That way, it’s Joe who figures out on his own what he missed and 22 gets to see that maybe life on Earth is worth living.
Or something like that. And the ending would be more ambiguous whether Joe gets another chance or not.
Or as I said earlier, replace 22 with Joe’s dad and just change the trajectory of the movie entirely.
22 doesn’t belong in Joe’s story and Joe doesn’t belong in 22’s.
22’s journey could be told in a completely different movie as a metaphor for learning differences and disability. Though the You Seminar has worked for a long time -it’s the failure of the Jerrys, not 22 that she hasn’t found her spark, since they’ve been so unwilling to change.
And raise the emotional stakes.
Because I didn’t cry during this movie. Not once.
This is a Pixar movie about death and living. I should have been sobbing and left in an existential crisis, yet I feel nothing. I felt nothing when 22 turned into a monster-thing, or when Joe was offered the chance to go back or during the big sequence where Joe and 22 are floating down towards Earth or when Joe is playing the piano and the camera keeps panning back until we’re looking at the Milky Way.
There was just no emotional impact for me.
Because the movie didn’t give me a reason to care about what was happening.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt so hurt and upset to give a movie such a low score before – at least I didn’t have high expectations for Onward -but I had high hopes for this movie – I’d been looking forward to it for so long.
I feel no different than before I watched it.
It’s beautiful. But I don’t think it’s as deep as it’s making itself out to be.
And that’s the scoop.
Score: B –
Director: Pete Docter
Producer: Dana Murray
If you liked this review read: I’m unimpressed by Nickelodeon’s “Glitch Techs.”