The Spark That Will Burn The Fire
Pixar’s latest film tackles themes of existentialism and purpose, so naturally I was stoked to see what one of the top leading movie companies could accomplish with this subject material. It has everything you have come to love from Pixar: great characters, perky humor, and wonderful messages for both adults and kids. Soul instantly invests you in its story and starts off as one of the strongest openers in the company’s history, but eventually transforms into something more simple and derivative. While this does hurt the movie’s potential, it doesn’t take away from the pure joy I had watching this movie and the themes I have ruminated on since I saw the film.
Joe Gardner is a middle school band teacher with a passion for Jazz, and he finally lands the gig of a lifetime. However, he is unexpectedly taken to the land of the Great Beyond after a tragic accident that left him in a coma. As Joe races to get back home, he comes across another “soul” named 22, an apathetic being who dreads having a life on Earth. Together they embark on a journey to bring Joe back to the real world, while trying to find what makes life truly special.
It’s a pretty hard story to describe, and is definitely something that needs to be experienced. The film has a brilliant first act that exposes the rules and environment that is awe-inspiring and brought a little tear to my eye. Seeing the design of The Great Before and The Great Beyond strikes that same mysticism as seeing The Land of the Dead in Coco, or the first ten minutes of Up. The level of detail with which new souls are created and sent down into earth is ingenious and feels like the creative brains at Pixar created one of their best concepts to date.
Joe Gardner is a compelling character that adults will be able to relate to. He’s down on his luck, experiencing a mid-life crisis and desires nothing more than to pursue his passion and dream of playing Jazz with some of the greats. The arc that he goes through in the film is great, but leaves a bit more to be desired when getting a well rounded look. I wish we saw more of his interactions in his daily life to really earn the impact of the ending, but nonetheless Joe was a well developed character that I was captivated by.
Tina Fey’s 22 on the other hand, see’s life on Earth as pointless and doesn’t understand why anyone would want to live in a loud, messed-up, dirty, and ultimately scary world. Her character growth is fully realized as she begins to understand through Joe what living life is truly about. Her cynicism plays well for humor, and the theme of passion and purpose feels earned as she is the character who has the most growth to experience. While it does come across as a little too simple at times, I enjoyed what the film was trying to say about her as her cynicism is relatable but her growth is easy to connect with as well.
This is arguably Pixar’s most mature film, meaning that I felt the themes, character arcs, and overall message will be more impactful for adults rather than kids. The themes of self-reflection, living a purposeful life, and pondering existentialism will go way over children’s heads but hit more mature audiences right in their hearts. I appreciated the complexity with which the movie tackles personalities, passion, and the value in life as an adult who can contemplate their past mistakes and how they have influenced them going forward. It’s something to be admired but also can take away from the family oriented nature of the film.
As I said before, the film starts off with a brilliant first 30 minutes and has a lot of fun in conveying the rules of this world and seeing how they incorporate high concepts such as zoning out, obsession, and the relationships between the real world and the metaphysical. It was so ambitious and engaging and I was wondering how Pixar could keep up this momentum. Sadly, the film’s second act starts to become more predictable and showcases it in a less than unique manner. I enjoyed the message that they were going for, but I couldn’t help but feel that Toy Story 4 or even Coco were able to accomplish this in a more meaningful way.
The film restores its momentum in the last act, providing an ending and parable that hits home and encourages its audience to see the world differently. In a year like 2020, where we tend to focus on all the things that have gone wrong and make life worse, the ending of Soul provides a hopeful outlook on life and provides a timely message that will resonate with most adults. While I wish the film would have delved more into the complexities of life and how we find our spark or passion, there is a beauty in the simplicity in which the film ends up going for.
That’s something that leaves me feeling a little bit mixed on the film. While it starts off ambitious and explores what makes us soulful brilliantly, it ultimately results in something that feels simple and safe. I feel like the film may have a bigger impact as I continue to grow as a person, but I feel like the overall message could have been more ambitious in its delivery and exploration.
Nonetheless, there is a lot to enjoy about Soul. It has excellent characters and humors and delves into mature topics headfirst. While the result of those ambitions may feel safe compared to what Pixar has accomplished in the best, it is still endearing and an excellent film. If you have Disney +, I highly recommend you check this one out and even if you don’t, it is well worth it to invest your time in a temporary subscription.
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