Soul is, easily, my favorite Pixar film since Inside Out. It’s not a coincidence, I don’t think, that both films were written and directed by Pete Doctor. In fact, at times this movie felt like a spiritual sequel to Inside Out. It dealt with a lot of the same themes, only examined them in different ways and from different perspectives.
With Doctor running the film, Soul is the first movie since 2016’s Finding Dory that was directed by one of Pixar’s creative founding fathers and it had a confidence that you’d expect from such a veteran hand. I’m not just talking about the charm and the style, which were replete, but the way the story was laid out was wonderful, opening the way it did, getting to the “manhole moment” within minutes of starting before the classic-Pixar world-building kicked in. From there the story planted all the plot-seeds necessary to ensure a third act full of payoff after payoff. If you ever want to understand the secret to successful writing, you need only to study the way Pixar’s writers lay out a story. Their movies are legendary for having tear-jerking third acts but the real secret sauce is in the first act.
The beginning of their movies set up all the pins to be knocked down later, the second act throws all the important obstacles, twists, and turns at the protagonist, and the third act is where all the pins finally tumble. What’s great about Pixar films is, if you look closely enough, you can see the creative brainstorming sessions and thought processes that went into the development of the movie come out as the story shifts from the first act to the second. What I mean is, as you watch the story unfold, early on, you might find yourself speculating about the direction things will go. What you’ll notice is how many possible directions the story could take, all of which would be interesting and in keeping with the world that was built in act one. All those various ideas were no doubt tossed around by the writers before they settled on the body-swap plot that became the movie’s second act. And even then, there were multiple ways to resolve the problems the heroes faced in act two, but whichever they chose, the goal was always to pay off the set-up established in the opening fifteen minutes of the movie.
I can talk for another three hundred words just about the storytelling process at work in this movie, but that would take away all the other things that made it so great. Not the least of which is the animation and visual style of the film. The way it smoothly shifts between the Inside-Out cartoonish nature of the spirit world with the incredibly photo-realistic nature of the real world (and back again) is, again, a testament to a confident creative team and director at the helm. And then there are the more surreal moments, such as the hot pink ship, skippered by (the perfectly cast) Graham Norton that sails across a barren desert of lost souls (which look like monsters from a Legend of Zelda game), and the occasional shifts to a black and white world as living characters become detached from their souls. And then there’s the escalator to the great beyond which, from the sound of it, can only be described as a supernatural bug zapper.
No doubt, the movie is occasionally weird, very weird, but it never goes off the rails; the humanity of it stays true. Even during the second act, which definitely dances close to the edge of “cliched and overused” with the “man and cat switch bodies” storyline, the core of the movie remains front and center: The best way to know that life is worth living is to live it.
If I have an issue with Soul it’s with its final resolution. It seemed to me, throughout the film, that the best resolution would be for 22 to learn that life is worth living and leave for earth to start her life, while Joe would come to terms with the fact that he would not be going back and would, instead, find a sense of purpose in teaching other misfit and stubborn spirits like 22 about the joy of living. It seemed logical to me that they would go this route, since a lot of attention was given to the notion of doing what you’re meant to do and how sometimes you have to, as in the case of Dez the barber, be willing to change what that “meant to do” thing is when something as good (if not better) comes along. I dunno, that seemed like the perfect set-up to Joe going from “I’m meant to be in a band” to “I’m meant to teach, first on earth, and now in the spirit world.”
Instead, the movie went for a very un-Pixar-like ending: Everyone got their cake and got to eat it too. 22 left to start her new life and Joe was given a second chance at living. Quite frankly, I was shocked that a movie that revolved so much about death never went all the way with killing…anyone.
That being said, I’m not one to knock points off a movie just because it didn’t do what I wanted it to do with the story. I want to judge it on what it did with the story that it told, not the story I thought it would tell. In that case, while the ending is a bit more pat and tidy, and less bittersweet than I’ve come to expect from the brilliant minds at Pixar, the ending wasn’t enough of a change that I felt it hurt the rest of the film.
10/10 – Soul is a testament to the incredible group of talented people working at Pixar. From a technical to a creative standpoint, the movie is a genuine high-water mark and more than worth your attention on Disney+ this holiday season.