I’m not a hater! Really, I’m not.
In fact, quite the opposite is true. As the parent of two young children, I have embraced the media and pop culture that is made for them. I love movies like Sing and Moana. I’ve written about the best kids’ shows on Netflix that I enjoy watching with them. I even watched an NFL football game on freakin’ Nickelodeon this weekend!
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One small positive that has come out of the pandemic is that streaming services are now sharing first-run movies on their platforms because movie theaters are closed. For the parents of young kids who may not be quite ready to sit through an hour-plus movie in a strange dark room, this is great.
Our family gets very excited when these new movies come out so this week, we planned a family movie night with the kids. We got the kids washed up, in their pajamas, and we all got cozy to watch the latest offering from Disney Pixar on the Disney+ streaming platform, Soul.
Unfortunately, the movie just wasn’t that good.
There. I said it. I know this might put me on the s — t list of the Pixar Army but that’s my truth. I call ’em like I see ‘em.
In the service of full disclosure, my wife liked the movie a lot. She cried at the end. My kids seemed to like it well enough too although my daughter dozed off about three-quarters of the way through which is somewhat unusual. They didn’t NOT like it but I don’t believe this is a movie that will be joining other Pixar classics like the Toy Story and Incredibles franchises in their heavy rotation.
Ok, so now that I said it, I have to back it up. Here is why Disney Pixar’s Soul wasn’t that good.
*** SPOILER ALERT: There are some plot spoilers for Soul below ***
*** ALTHOUGH: Part of my point here is that the plot’s not that great so go ahead and read on! ***
The fact is, the bar is set incredibly high going into Soul. The two names on top of the poster, Disney and Pixar, are the biggest and best creators of kids’ movies of all time. This movie isn’t being compared to low-rent junk.
To be a great Disney Pixar movie, it has to achieve the heights of everything from 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to 2019’s Frozen II and all the legendary releases in between. Soul just didn’t measure up.
Comparing Soul to recent Disney and Pixar releases, it simply didn’t bring the fast-paced action of Frozen, the adult and kid-friendly humor of the Wreck-It Ralph movies, the engaging plot of Zootopia, or the heart and deep emotional concepts of Inside Out. That last piece is what the movie was going for. Unfortunately, the high-minded ideals just never fully seemed to connect with the audience.
The Plot Problem
The plot of Soul revolves around a middle-aged music teacher, Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), who finally gets his big break, an audition to play with a famous Jazz musician set up by a former student. As soon as Joe realizes his life-long dream, he falls through a manhole in New York City on the way home from the audition and dies. He ends up in the Great Beyond but manages to sneak away from Soul’s version of the pearly gates and ends up in the spot where new souls are created before they are sent to Earth.
From there, Joe is accidentally matched as a mentor to soul #22 (Tina Fey). #22 is an incorrigible soul who has failed to get her “spark” — the final thing she needs to start her life on Earth — even after being mentored by some of the most famous people in history. When Joe and #22 are able to sneak back to earth, she accidentally ends up in Joe’s body, and Joe, as a cat now, guides her through a day in the life of an average Joe.
Throughout the movie, Joe keeps referring to the “spark” as a life’s purpose. He believes his purpose is playing music. In the end, #22 finally gets her spark and can start her life on Earth. Joe earns a second chance back in his body, learns that the spark is not necessarily a life’s purpose, and he reevaluates his life. This last part is where the movie falls down.
The point that they are building to throughout the movie is something about appreciating life for what it is and living life to the fullest but it doesn’t stick the landing. The plot leading up to the finale is an entertaining series of vignettes but without the cohesive, profound ending, that’s really all they are.
The Coco Comparison
The best comparison based on the subject matter is probably to Disney Pixar’s 2017 smash hit, Coco. The idea of someone dying, making their way to the “other side”, and learning lessons about a life they would eventually get back to runs throughout both these movies. While Coco executed this play incredibly well — to the tune of 50+ awards including two Oscars — Soul didn’t get it quite right.
The other area where Coco comes in way ahead is that, where Coco takes us on a journey deep into the world of traditional Mexican music, Soul tries this same approach with the world of jazz. Maybe the subject matter is just that much richer or maybe I just found the traditional music of Coco more appealing than jazz (which I admittedly am not the biggest fan of to begin with) but the music in Soul just doesn’t resonate like it did in Coco or as it does in many Disney Pixar films.
This is a little surprising because of the talent behind the music. The normally phenomenal Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross did the score and the incredibly multi-talented Jon Batiste (most widely known as the bandleader of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert) did the jazz compositions and arrangements.
The Talent Gap
The last problem I had with Soul is that the voice talent didn’t add much to the movie for me. The cast is star-studded like all Disney Pixar films are, and the talent in this one includes a lot of people I love. In addition to Foxx and Fey, the cast includes the legendary Phylicia Rashad and Angela Basset, the hilarious Donnell Rawlings, Questlove from the Roots, and Daveed Diggs who is one of my favorite parts of Hamilton.
This incredibly talented cast should have created a host of memorable and vivid characters. For some reason though, through no fault of their own, the story isn’t elevated by their presence. I find myself having to repeatedly look up who played who and who that character actually was as I write this review. The lone bright spot is New Zealand voice actress Rachael House who is side-splittingly funny as the soul counter, Terry.
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I have seen a lot of positive reviews of Soul so maybe there is something I missed. I’m not going to go back and look for it because I don’t think it’s very good but I’m willing to leave that possibility open. The movie wasn’t bad, it just left something to be desired and for a Disney Pixar movie, that means it didn’t measure up to expectations. There’s no shame in that but if you show up looking for yet another instant classic, you may be disappointed.