Director: Pete Docter (Inside Out, Up, Monsters Inc.) Kemp Powers
Writer: Pete Docter, Mike Jones, Kemp Powers
Music By: Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
Jazz Compositions and Arrangements by: Jon Baptiste
Soul has a bad screenplay. Initial presumptions of the film being exactly like Inside Out plus Coco are spot on. With unclear story rules and little consequence it has a narrative that goes nowhere in all directions. The Defending Your Life concept doesn’t blend with the Jazz angle the film needs it to to work. Having seen the film last night, I barely recall the ending, although the animation is truly best in-class. The jazz compositions by Jon Baptiste are fantastically brilliant, but there’s no getting away from the film’s core which suffers an identity crisis. This is the first Pixar film without any input from story mogul and alleged abuser John Lasseter, who helped run both of Disney animation company’s houses (Walt Disney and PIXAR). Although there are stylish deviations; a late end/ title card and a blend of multiple animation styles, the film is flat. This is the first Pixar film I can remember that feels like a copy of something else.
The voice work isn’t particularly winning. I love both Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey, but though they are rendered in complex 3D they aren’t playing three dimensional characters. No subsurface scattering or advanced shading can hide the narrative shortcomings. Fey is miscast as either a soul named 22 who is both too young and naive and too old and cynical about the world around her. She is educated with no experience. Fey isn’t as good a fit as her former co-star Amy Poehler was in Inside Out. And her voice and race in particular gets called out in the film. As for Foxx, he is exactly the kind of Soulful person you’d want in a film with musical potential. But Foxx is also a Rockstar and a roll with the punches kind of guy. Though he has squareness in his best performances like Collateral, with the writing in place it’s hard to buy him as a down on his luck guy who hates his job. And despite dying, you never gets the sense his life is truly disrupted. Eddie Murphy meanwhile has been begging for this kind of role and a musical career for years, and the desperate down on his luck Joe is the kind of relatable character he built his career on.
The film meanders from point to point and the central goal constantly changes. It feels improvised like Jazz, but never finds its rhythm. The only life signs are platitudes and cheap Family Guy-style cutaway gags that belong in a DreamWorks animated film. The film has a cheap and obvious conclusion with thin connective tissue. Its confusing trying to follow the rules for how a soul can bounce between the real world and the ‘Great Before’. At one point after a character gets exactly what they want they ask what happens next. The answer another character intones: We come back and do it all again. It’s not fun for the audience.
There’s an instance of Pixar repeating itself. As if assembling all the expensive talent involved was enough. It’s an impressive arrangement.. for about 20 minutes. Then in a Toy Story-esque fashion it devolves into monotony. Someone has to make it back to X location before Y does something. Maybe that’s why Toy Story 4 is the only Pixar tale I’ve enjoyed in the last decade. The “The Great Before” is a copy of Inside Out’s mind, floating aberrations instead of feelings. You could also mistake it for the de-populated afterlife of Coco. Although I did not care for Coco it had fresh philosophical ideas and found a way better style to fit music into. It doesn’t surprise me the animators originally chose their own profession as a subject before rearranging the pieces.
There’s little soul in Pixar’s Soul. Perhaps Disney has grown too big to fill it. The central character bond, a staple of the Pixar brand isn’t strong enough to hold up a film with only gorgeous animation and relaxing jazz numbers to complement the altogether rudimentary story.