Soul review: Pixar’s existential adventure doesn’t always find its rhythm

Soul debuting exclusively on Disney+ © 2020 Disney/Pixar, All Rights Reserved
Soul debuting exclusively on Disney+ © 2020 Disney/Pixar, All Rights Reserved /

Despite an impressive ensemble cast and Pixar’s most ambitious concept yet, Pixar’s Soul frequently gets in its own way.

The second major would-be theatrical release to hit Disney+ after Mulan’s release with a $30 price tag back in September, Pixar’s newest film Soul is now available to stream at no additional cost to current subscribers. It’s strange to see Disney release a film nearly for free, but maybe the lack of additional cost is indicative of the studio’s confidence in the film itself.

Though it sets itself up for success with a massive ensemble cast full of vocal talent, and a story that starts out as Pixar’s most conceptual and ambitious yet, Soul neuters itself rather quickly, shrugging off much of its potential in favor of a serviceable but uninspired body-swap hijinks story.

Starring Jamie Foxx, Soul follows a middle-aged jazz enthusiast named Joe. Though he once had dreams of becoming a successful musician like his father, Joe has had little success and is stuck teaching jazz to mostly unenthusiastic middle-schoolers – that is, until one of his former students calls him and invites him to play the gig of a lifetime.

Joe nails the audition, but just as his luck is beginning to look up, he falls into a pothole and goes into a coma, his soul leaving his body and entering a new realm between life and death. Refusing to succumb to the afterlife when he believes his life is just starting, Joe winds up posing as a mentor for renegade unborn soul 22 (Tina Fey). 22 helps him find a way back to his physical body on earth, but in the process, the two accidentally end up on earth together – 22 in Joe’s body and Joe in the body of the hospital’s therapy cat.

In writing, the plot seems like quite a bit, but in reality, the end result after the 45-minute mark is pretty much your standard body-swap hijinks animated comedy. The soul starts out strong – we get a very clear picture of who Joe is very quickly in the film’s opening minutes, and after his accident, the world it presents, full of floating blue souls and shapeless authoritarian beings called “Jerrys,” is intriguing and joyous – taking a page out of Inside Out‘s book.

However, just as we’re getting to know what Pixar’s idea of the afterlife looks like, the film dredges itself back into reality and settles for the 22-is-in-Joe’s-body-and-joe-is-in-a-cat story. It’s incredibly frustrating to see Soul present such a complex and exciting idea, especially when they tackle a subject as difficult as mortality in such a Pixar-esque way, only to see them throw it down the drain when the second half of the film is back in the real world.

After Joe’s accident, we get glimpses of the stages of the afterlife – a massive and intimidating eternity that Joe is desperate to avoid, and the realm he stumbles into, ran by the Jerrys (Alice Braga and Richard Ayoade), where new souls are outfitted with personalities. Soul presents this stage as where human beings get their passion, and in order to travel to earth, everyone needs a ‘spark’ – the thing that brings them the most joy in life. Fey’s character 22 has thus far avoided heading to earth by being given a spark, and thus it’s up to Joe to help her find one so he can take her ‘earth pass’ and return to his body.

The idea of consciousness before birth, a ‘spark’ that drives all of us and helps influence our existence on this planet, and the way in which personalities are assigned (seemingly at random) are just a few of the charming revelations we experience in this in-between realm Joe finds himself in, and it’s also where the film’s best moments take place. The Jerrys that are in charge are 2-D Picasso-esque beings that can change their shape at will, making for some intriguing ways animators play with shape and solidity. Both Ayoade and Braga also bring immense amounts of charm and charisma to their roles – in fact, it’s the ensemble cast of Soul that provides the film with the majority of its strengths.

Funnily enough, the most unremarkable of the bunch are the two leads – Foxx and Fey. As Joe, Jamie Foxx is serviceable. He’s got a great voice, of course, and he can tug on the heartstrings when he needs to, but as much as the film is supposed to be about Joe, there are never moments where he really shines or leaps out as the hero of his own story. This gets exponentially worse when he’s plucked into the body of a cat on earth, making it incredibly difficult to stage the late-stage emotional gut-punches that would normally elevate a Pixar film’s protagonist.

Instead, strangely, the film seems to shift its focus to Tina Fey’s “22” when the duo returns to earth, and this is one of it’s largest mistakes. As 22 Tina Fey is annoying – there really isn’t any other way to describe it. She lacks the scrappy charm and easy humor of other pipsqueak Disney protagonists, like Wreck-It Ralph‘s Vanellope Von Schweetz, voiced by fellow comedienne Sarah Silverman. 22 and Vanellope share quite a few traits, but for whatever reason, 22 just doesn’t have that innate likability, nor do we ever root for her -certainly not enough to ever want her to succeed over Joe when she decides she suddenly does want to come to earth after all.

Outside of Fey’s flat performance, the character of 22 isn’t particularly likable either, and the character design for the blue “Souls” as a whole isn’t Pixar’s best – when contrasted with the design of the Jerrys or even the humans on earth, the turquoise Caspar knockoffs don’t seem particularly inspired.

The rest of the ensemble fares much better, though. In contrast to the aforementioned Braga and Ayoade, who serves as the calming, encouraging mentors to the fledgling souls, there’s Rachel House as Terry, the bookkeeper of the death-like realm that Joe is desperate to avoid. Terry, like the Jerrys, is a shapeless geometrical being who can pass through objects at will, and House’s raspy New Zealand accent is perfect for a sometimes-intimidating sometimes-endearing Pixar villain, if Terry can even be called that.

Other highlights are Graham Norton as the dimension-hopping hippie Moonwind, who can transfer souls back to their earthly bodies, and Phylicia Rashad as Joe’s mother Libba. Questlove and Daveed Diggs also shine in their roles (so small you might call them cameos) and our only complaint is that we wish we could’ve seen more of them.

In addition to the cast, the film’s other biggest strength is its score – provided by frequent David Fincher collaborators/Nine Inch Nails members Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Reznor and Ross’ score pulls double duty – jazzy and, well, soulful when Joe is on earth, and joyously techno-pop-y when Joe is in the in-between realm. It’s a wonderful mirror of the film’s two drastically different settings, and at times goes much further than the animation in helping establish that tonal shift.

Soul, on paper, gets most everything right. The pacing can’t be faulted, the characters should work, and the ensemble cast is so strong it’d be difficult for the film to turn out poorly. It isn’t bad, per se, but it isn’t great either. We were left with the impression that Soul got in its own way by refusing to explore the most intriguing concepts it presented, instead opting for the easy way out, and suffering for it.

Though the supporting cast and the score are worth the price of admission, Soul lands squarely in the middle of the pack when it comes to Pixar’s legendary film canon.

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Have you seen Soul yet? What did you think of it? Let us know in the comments.