Starring: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey
Directed by: Pete Doctor
Disney animated movies generally have a set of criteria that they’re supposed to check-off. State-of-the art animation, beautiful messages, and wonderful music are what makes Disney’s and Pixar’s animated movies unique and special. Pete Docter’s Soul checks off all those boxes, but somehow misses its mark. It tries to hard to be a film that resonates with the viewer and, in turn, comes across as a story that tries to hard to push its moral teachings. It feels like Disney and Doctor were playing too much like the standard formula for these types of films to make it truly stand out. Soul is a good movie that gets in its own way.
Joe Gardiner (Jamie Foxx) is a middle-school music teacher with aspirations to be a jazz musician. He finally catches his big break, but on his way home from the audition, he falls through an open manhole cover and dies. His soul, on his way to the Great Beyond, escapes in a hasty attempt to make the jazz concert that evening. However, he’s not able to make it back to Earth and ends up in the Great Before; a place where souls are developed before they’re sent to Earth.
Trying to permanently avoid being sent to the Great Beyond, Joe masquerades as a mentor for one of the new souls. He’s paired with 22 (Tina Fey): a soul who refuses to find their spark and be sent to Earth. Many of Earth’s great people have tried to mentor her, but her stubbornness wins every time. This time though, she senses something different about Joe and she tries to help him find his way back to Earth. She takes him to Moonlight (Graham Norton), a soul who seeks out lost souls and gives their lives purpose again. Moonlight agrees to help Joe, but in the process both Joe and 22 are sent back to Earth with 22 taking over Joe’s body and Joe taking over the soul of a cat. Now Joe and 22 are racing to get Joe’s soul back in his body before his big concert.
Soul is actually a fairly good movie. It’s well-produced, lively, and mildly funny. One of the major problems for Soul is that it feels too much like a cookie-cutter version of other Disney/Pixar fare. Watching this movie, I kept feeling like this was trying to be like Inside Out, another Disney/Pixar film that’s written and directed by Pete Docter. While sequels are not a bad thing and inspiration can make ideas flourish, Soul’s comparison to other movies is what makes this film seem weak. It tries too hard to push idealistic messages or to provoke thoughts about existentialism and the after-(and in this case, the before-) life.
Where a movie like Inside Out had a clever interplay between different emotions and how they needed to balance out, Soul relies on making non-sequitur jokes about Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln, and the New York Knicks before settling into a message about one’s purpose in life. Many of the jokes, are mildly amusing, but rarely do they make you laugh out loud. This makes the movie feel like it has an unrelenting taste that’s artificial; nothing it does feels profound or witty. Thoughtful proses by the rich cast of characters comes across phonier than all the people that Holden Caulfield meets in a day.
There are issues with the direction of its story. When it feels like it’s about to go right, it goes slightly off to the left. Some of these misdirections are actually interesting like Joe’s contemplation about his purpose in life, while others, like ending, feels awkward. Pacing is a major problem for this movie. It feels like it goes on forever and then the final act is over before you know it. At least you need to credit the writing team for trying to change up the formula to make the movie seem less predictable, which can be a problem for Disney films. The gamble doesn’t pay off because of the writers’ efforts to stray from a formula, you get a movie that feels very heavy for the first half and then it seems to zip by during the last twenty minutes. Soul felt more like a Scorsese movie in length than its actual 101 minutes.
Soul is not a bad film, but it just doesn’t live up to its pedigree. Pacing aside, it doesn’t do anything strikingly wrong, but it feels so generic compared to other Disney/Pixar films. On its own, Soul doesn’t feel genuine. Pete Docter’s film feels like a prefabricated movie from a factory, which is kind of what Disney movies tend to be. However, while most other Disney movies develop their own flavour, Soul is fairly bland. It’s still fun to watch, but disappointing considering its pedigree.