By Andrea Thompson
Films about the afterlife are bound to get philosophical about life…well, most of the time, but films like “Beetlejuice” are no less fun for their focus on character and creativity rather than the meaning of humanity. What’s surprising about Pixar’s latest, “Soul,” is how little the afterlife and its mechanics just don’t hold up.
I’m about as baffled as anyone. To watch “Soul” is to do so with the understanding that death is going to be somewhat explored, since there’s no hiding its basic premise, which anyone can sympathize with. Regardless of any success 2020 has allowed us to retain, or even achieve, we’ve all gotten a taste of what it was like to lose out on a goal that seemed tantalizingly within our grasp. And Joe (Jamie Foxx) gets dealt maybe the worst hand possible. He’s a long-struggling jazz pianist who finally catches a break, only to perish once he does.
Joe manages to avoid going into the light, but he finds himself in The Great Before, where souls who have yet to be born are given their personalities. Will Joe get a companion who will prove just as nurturing to him as he will be to them? Yes, but the soul dubbed 22 is played by Tina Fey, and they’ve never been too interested in life on Earth. The crash course that we know is coming? It’s funny, well, soulful, and for a while it’s got a talking cat.
The truly strange thing about “Soul” is how concerned it is with life rather than its own otherworldly premise, which comes complete with childlike creatures who could hold their own against Gru’s minions in terms of cuteness. But after setting up a fascinating world that owes as much to quantum physics as philosophy, “Soul” mostly turns it into a backdrop to explore how Joe has lived his life. And how he hasn’t.
The movie may be dedicated to the mentors in our lives, but it has something of a fuzzy concept of the lives they have outside of the people they affect. Joe seems to have no shortage of passion, and it gets through every now and then to the students in the mostly terrible middle school band he teaches. He may wince at the resulting noise, but that passion is how he manages to get many of them to care, and even nurture one student who has a gift for it.
Why then, is “Soul” so uninterested in exploring the mechanics of how our souls are molded? Even if the afterlife for fully formed souls isn’t the focus, Pixar still gives us a rich world full of possibility, one where humans are already present, consciously or not. This is where souls in touch with their joy and purpose experience that joy, and where others whose joys have deteriorated into obsession become lost, where they can be rescued by those who’ve achieved a higher form of existence.
Sound interesting? Don’t get attached, because while “Soul” has plenty of clever gags and zingers, it doesn’t spend much time in the literal darker side of life. Previous Pixar films such as “Coco” have delved into similar realms and topics, but there was vibrancy and investment in both its premise and characters that’s missing here. Its true predecessor is probably “Inside Out,” but even the various realms of a single preteen girl’s mind feels more fleshed out than the dull bureaucracy of The Great Before.
“Soul” may fail to fully follow through on its characters or its premise, but even a duller Pixar film will leave an impression. Few hearts will be unmoved by the end, but not in a way that will live up to the far richer content that preceded it.