“Soul” (2020): Whatever happened to originality?


Image courtesy of Slate.

Jamie Foxx’s character Joe’s soul standing in the middle of the void in “Soul”.

Max Vetter, Entertainment Reporter

“And on the pedestal, these words appear: My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.” Oh, I’m sorry, you seem to have walked in on my daily thematically appropriate reading. Anyway, let’s talk about the new Pixar movie.

“Soul” is Pixar’s newest in a series of missed opportunities. It follows Joe (of the average variety, I presume), a middle school jazz teacher who, upon getting the gig of a lifetime, dies. He is then catapulted to the afterlife, a land of marshmallow farts and cubist accountant gods. Joe, slowly approaching the imposing “Great Beyond”, escapes in an act of cowardice to a sort of before-life called the “You Seminar”. I think there’s a very good – maybe even great – movie hidden in this web of underdeveloped themes and Pixarisms, but it’s certainly difficult to find when the film tries so hard to make itself so un-unique. But I won’t let myself get carried away too quickly. What makes this movie good?

Well, it’s impossible to deny that the animation and character designs for half the movie are stellar. Pixar’s at a point where they can do just about anything. Light plays on surfaces in ways near indistinguishable from reality, characters move with a fluidity and polish you can just about only see in Pixar movies, and the people and objects of the world have a tangible quality that is quite immersive. I’d even go so far as to say that the real world segments of this movie contain some of the most refined (note: not necessarily best) 3D animation ever put to screen. I also think that the script, barring a few egregious bits, was quite good! There are lots of great character moments and the occasional neat concept which keep the pace up and the story interesting. Above all, I could never say I was bored during this one. But even though I was never bored, I definitely got annoyed. 

For every good character design and interesting idea, there seems to be one lazy or irritating decision to balance it out. The design of the titular souls in this movie are so bland that I’d almost compare them to the insufferable minions of “Despicable Me” (2010) fame. If there’s ever a point where I’m comparing an animated movie’s work to that of Illumination, the worst big budget animation studio on the planet, then you know you’re doing something wrong. There are so many dull plot, character, and comedy ideas it makes my head spin! Pete Doctor’s schtick of “Oh, what if some concept had feelings and was like a human thing?” was neat in “Inside Out” (2015) because, along with having a more well written story, at least that movie had interesting character designs! But “Soul” just flops.

Take a look at the character designs for the emotions from “Inside Out”:

From left to right: Anger, Disgust, Joy, Fear, and Sadness. (Image courtesy of The Pixar Times.)

Now compare that to the character designs for the souls from “Soul”:

From left to right: 22, Joe, and Moonwind. (Image courtesy of D23.)

What do you get from 22’s character design? All of her defining features are that she’s round, has red cheeks, and a buck tooth. It’s nothing! The same thing goes with the other two characters in the still from “Soul”; who are these characters? I can tell exactly who the five core emotions from “Inside Out” are from just a quick glance. Sure, they’re still cutesy and appealing to kids, but they all have distinctive color schemes and geometries which make them pop. One of the great things about animation is that you can create characters whom you could understand without the sound on. But what do you get from “Soul”? You get blue blobs on a purple or green background, where you wait desperately for the next real world sequence so you can enjoy the movie again!

I miss the days when Pixar was a company founded on unique and groundbreaking 3D animation, where each new movie was not only a technical achievement, but a bold and original story that could only be told the way it was. Pixar used to be a studio whose MO was creating monumental pieces of art, but they’ve gone soft. Pixar has made two movies this year, “Onward” and “Soul”, yet ironically, neither of them advance the medium of animation or seem to have a soul. Pixar’s animation is so crisp and their budget so big that you almost forget that what you’re watching is effectively just something to keep the kids quiet for 90 minutes. Please don’t watch “Soul”; you’re just showing that audiences don’t care about originality anymore.