Soul (2020) Review: Pixar’s Latest is a Gorgeous Meditation on Living and Dying
The thing which sets apart Pixar from other Animation studios is the life-affirming storytelling that drives the proceedings. The themes Pixar discusses through its work abound with surprising maturity but the storytelling has as much simplicity as it has the smack of candor. The latest offering from Pixar, which is Soul, comes from Pete Docter, whose last film Inside Out is my favorite Pixar movie of all time. By turning the characters into concepts in their own right, the film manages to be both very busy as well as calm and pensive in the manner in which it examined the various themes of a coming-of-age narrative.
This is something that can be said about Soul as well. The narrative follows a middle-aged man called Joe Gardener who teaches music in a middle school in New York. He happens to fall into a street drain while walking through the streets in the excitement of some fabulous news, and he becomes unconscious, which is when his soul leaves his body to the place at the confluence of heaven and hell, and that’s majorly where the heart of Soul’s adventure lies. It’s a familiar gamble for the Pixar studios: death and letting go have previously been explored in the Pixar oeuvre with films such as Coco (2017) and Ratatouille (2007). Yet, somehow, they work thoroughly this time as well, with nearly as much inventiveness and humor.
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Soul is old wine in a new bottle, but there are some unusual aspects that the film shifts its focus on- the wandering soul serves as a unique allegory to depict midlife crises. What also strikes you is a subtle undertone of middle-age longing as we come to know about Joe’s love for a woman called Lisa. The film also functions as an enjoyable portrayal of how a man’s greatness becomes his baggage when something about the ways of the world becomes hard to comprehend. The creative team needs to be lauded to finally give us a black protagonist living in a society of racial minority: in fact, the African-American representation of the film is one of the most subtle ways that it works- perhaps the second chance given to Joe is a politically shrewd metaphor for a black man to live a life of dignity and to live life his way, to his full potential. The film’s ‘souls’: bluish minions who are extremely small in size- elevate the film’s suggestive anti-racist symbolism.
Soul might not be one of the most amazing Pixar films in the way the other more amazing Pixar films are, but its knack for realism needs to be celebrated. The conflicts of a central character seem more resonant to the real world than most of what Pixar has produced to date. The three-dimensional animation is beautiful: the film’s display of colors is heightened, perhaps fitting for the film that features the first protagonist of a racial minority. Steve Pilcher’s production design is in perfect sync with the overall melody of the narrative- it’s a film about a man for whom the jazz music he makes is his only purpose, and the immersive atmosphere does perfect justice to that. Trent Reznor’s compositions are so melodious that you want a feature-length music video that just keeps on playing the same symphony again and again.
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The attention to detail is sharp and immaculate, and there’s a lot of artfulness in the way the characters share conversations. This, in fact, is not a film meant for children at all, as its Disney+ Hotstar release might put it. The film is anything but meant for children. The conversations these small and big characters share are simple in dialogue and honest in intent but the content has not the least bit of a kiddie charm, which comes off as totally unexpected from a studio this committed to the entertainment of a younger section of the audience. The film takes its own sweet time to unfold and it is meant to reward a degree of patience.
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But the film’s narrative uses manipulation more frequently than it should. The film has the style and substance of Inside Out and adopts a similar structure of characters being mere concepts. Sadly though, Soul misses the rawness and layers of that film and adopts a more simplistic method. The film’s music delivers promise and solidity but it would have been nicer if the makers expanded on the film’s musicality. But by all means, Soul is a swooning marriage of metaphorical and animated storytelling, which makes it an essentially sumptuous meditation on living, dying, and everything in between.