Pixar’s animated shorts have long been an area in which the studio has tried out new things. The two minute film Luxo Jr., featuring the two desk lamps and the bouncy ball, first showed the world their mastery of computer animation then Tin Toy and Knick Knack followed, both of which used techniques and ideas that would feed into Toy Story. New artists and directors then made their mark with charming little stories in For the Birds, Boundin’, Day & Night and others which showed in cinemas before their feature films. After a while though the shorts started to experiment with different creative choices too and frankly some of them got a little bizarre. Lava, with its anthropomorphic volcanos was cute but strange and then they presented Bao which featured a woman mothering a sentient steamed bun before eating it when it wanted to leave home. It won an Oscar but also freaked out hundreds of thousands of children when it screened in front of Incredibles 2.
Well it seems that, like the superb computer rendering and quirky characterisation, this new weirdness is now creeping into their movies. Onward, from earlier this year, had a character who was entirely missing the top half of his body and now we have Soul which features a man who finally realises his life’s dream only to fall down a man hole and die (that’s in the first five minutes), there’s the soul of an unborn child with the personality of a middle aged woman (this is explained but not well) and we get spiritualist who can meditate himself into captaining a rainbow galleon around the astral plane (voiced by Graham Norton). It’s all really odd and crucially, there is nothing here to interest children. There’s a talking cat but not in a cute or cool way, it’s more Aristotelian metaphysics than it is Artistocats.
The Pixar film this most compares to is Inside Out which also played with notions of the philosophical construct of human beings and idea that we are peopled by little people. Both films share a writer/director in Pete Docter but this is nowhere near as successful as that film. Inside Out maintained a central logic that Soul is unable to grasp and even though it dealt with a serious examination of the self in the same way, Inside Out never felt like it was losing sight of its wider audience. Essentially the human in question there was a kid but with this new film it’s a quite serious thirty or forty something guy which does not hold the same appeal. In fact there is nothing childlike or even particularly fun about any of the characters in Soul, real or abstract. The film could do with a Bing Bong or rainbow unicorn but most of all, and in more ways than one, it is missing joy.
It is great that Pixar have finally centred a film around a black protagonist and black culture and it will be particularly wonderful for those from the same background to see themselves represented on screen but that is where this character is going to stay. It would have been so much better if they had not done this with the first of their many animated creations to have absolutely no marketing potential whatsoever. When Disney released The Princess and the Frog and Moana, the toy shops filled up with black dolls and figurines but there will be none of that here. Even aside of anything else, the guy is a bit of a jerk. His redemption comes eventually but he’s totally self absorbed for most of the movie. I know Lightning McQueen was a little full of himself initially too but at least he was a race car, this guy is a struggling pianist and a disenchanted music teacher, ooh fun!
Soul is getting good reviews and I have no wish to rain on the parade. The animation is spectacular, mostly when the film captures New York rather than when it goes into the fantasy realm, and it is full of clever ideas. It also has two great soundtracks mixed in together; one of jazz tunes by Jon Batiste and another of ambient electronica by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. I can see why the film journalists and any other adult who sits down to watch it on their own would like it. As a family film though it may not offer what people hope.
I suspect Disney knew this when they made the decision to put it out free to subscribers on Disney+, rather than with a premium charge like Mulan. Also on this, after the credits one of the characters comes back Ferris Bueller style to tell everyone that the movie is over and everyone should ‘go home’. Did no one tell them? Gremlins 2 had a gag where the celluloid burnt up when it showed in cinemas but they replaced this with a scene where it switches channels for the video release. Since Soul will never now play in cinemas could they not have changed this, they only needed to redub it with something?
For me this is just one more example of how Soul misses its mark and fails to understand where its audience are.
The Ripley Factor:
Soul does not have great female characters, they are strong in most cases but they are tropes. 22 is played by Tina Fey (her buddy Amy Poehler got the better Pixar gig) but is technically genderless. Outside of this we get the domineering jazz matriarch, the domineering actual matriarch and a cat lady. Rachel House is the closest the film has to a baddie but she is playing the same role as she did in Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Thor: Ragnorok, oh and also genderless.