5 min read

Soul

"Did you cry?"

That's one of the first questions I'm asked after watching a Pixar movie. This question has almost become the new metric in assessing the quality of a Pixar film, whether the movie successfully brought us to that emotional moment, giving us that catharsis, that space to feel, before we have to return to the less emotional "real" world where it's not quite as normal to shed a tear.

Pixar has some sort of exploitable gap in my tear ducts, that makes it easy for them to wring them dry. The gap, it turns out, is pretty big. I've cried watching Coco, Inside Out, Toy Story, just to name a few.

But to answer the question, no, I did not cry at Soul.

And that is not a bad thing.

Soul isn't trying to make you cry. It is not trying to bring you to the highs of Miguel singing a tearful tribute to Coco or the lows of THAT scene from Up (you know the one). Soul is a much quieter movie that isn't about the best or worst days of someone's life. It's about the everyday, the humdrum, the rut, the fact that life does not happen like it does in the movies. It goes on, and on, and on, and the credits don't roll after you fulfill your dream, whatever that may be. This may make Soul sound a little dreary. But if anything, it's uplifting precisely because it chooses to zone in on the normal, ordinary day and transform it into something spectacular, something to be celebrated and cherished. It's not all rosy throughout, mainly because this focus on the mundane comes into such sharp contrast with the daring ambition of the project. But, setting aside some issues with focus and pacing, this is one of Pixar's most profound and evocative films yet.

For years, Pixar has imbued personalities into inanimate objects or other non-human entities. We've seen cars, bugs, toys, rats, and robots come to life, and with rare exceptions, humans too. Nothing could prepare us for 2015's Inside Out, where feelings had feelings. Soul pushes it even further, giving the abstract entity of life and the soul personalities. It's not Pixar's first venture into conceptualizing the afterlife, but unlike 2017's Coco, Soul starts from scratch. That sense of imagination and creation is most evident in Soul's visual representations of the Great Beyond and Great Before. Pixar movies are always visually stunning, but Soul goes further artistically, incorporating elements of abstract art to craft this life between lives. It's not all metaphysical and conceptual. Soul ostensibly has two major settings. There's the floating fields of the Great Before, with the accompanying frolicking souls and the infinite Hall of Everything. And on the other end of the imaginary-to-real spectrum, is New York City. Soul's New York City is bustling, and filled with detail. It's a treat to see Pixar take a stab at animating the Big Apple, but it initially suffers by comparison because of the majestic Great Before. I found myself longing to return to the vivid colors and surreality of Soul's other half. Ultimately, the commitment to the reality of New York City emotionally pays off but on first-viewing, it almost felt to me like an exercise of patience.

The film's two settings have a similar effect on Soul's plot and pacing. Life in the Great Before is languid and serene, but the characters in New York City are constantly rushing, ricocheting from task to task. There are several beautiful moments in New York City when we stop to breathe, but there's  whiplash as the film oscillates between two very different paces. But like my grievances with the mundanity of New York City, my issues with pacing disappeared very quickly once the movie clicked into place. There's a distinct moment in Soul when it became clear what the film was doing, and I realized the issues with pacing were not missteps but by design.

The highlight of Soul's two halves is its music, fitting considering the movie is about an aspiring jazz musician. Going in, I had expected soulful melodies, knowing Jon Batiste was composing and arranging the film's jazz music. I'm fascinated by jazz and its spontaneous and unpredictable qualities. And unsurprisingly, Batiste did not compromise on his arrangements, by crafting complex and rhythmic tracks, that help capture what makes the genre of jazz so special. When any character in the film enters their Zone, it is sonically palpable.

But my expectations for the film's music were truly surpassed by the delicate instrumental score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Reznor and Ross are most known in the film world for scoring David Fincher's later work, like Gone Girl, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and The Social Network (which they won an Oscar for). Though no one doubted their musical prowess, the announcement of their involvement in a Pixar film was understandably met with great skepticism. Their work has been praised for its ominous and haunting undertones; how could it belong in a kids' movie? But as it turns out, Reznor and Ross' ethereal sound fit in seamlessly to the Great Before and its celestial setting. Moreover, their sharp and clean score is the perfect partner for Batiste's messy and frenetic compositions. When brought together, Batiste, Reznor, and Ross' work becomes the glue to Soul, holding together its plot, setting, and characters, all while sounding really, really good.

As much as I admire Soul's ambition, there are features of the world that lead to some confusion. Some of these are minor, like one pre-existing soul knowing what a chainsaw is but not a razor. Others are more glaring puzzles, like the exact rules of what it means when a soul enters a body, and whether our memories are stored in our physical selves or our souls. You can wave these oversights aside because of the film's emotional power, but a sharper focus on the world's rules would have provided more clarity, especially during some pivotal scenes.

Pixar is always touted as the animation studio that makes grown-up movies for kids. And in this respect, along with its music, scope, and world, Soul takes Pixar even further. When the film isn't immediately concerned with mortality, it's a meditation on what it means to endure the repetition of daily life, waiting for that one big change to uproot you. These aren't things I was thinking about on the daily when I was 9. And what I find even more daunting for children is the fact that Soul refuses to slap on an easy moral or provide a path to living. It does not intrude with a message or simplify its concept for an easy win. It instead gives the viewer space, to breathe, to experience the film's themes quietly. It's why Soul digs so deep, why one of its final sequences will be running on loop in my brain for years to come. And it's why Soul did not make me cry. Sometimes movies resort to twisting the knife with the saddest possible moment, to elicit the tearful response. But Soul doesn't want to do that. That type of melodrama isn't part of our everyday. That's reserved for select moments in our lives, for the days when our hearts are broken, when we lose someone we love, or when we achieve what we never thought was possible. Instead, Soul is about finding that emotion, that boundless feeling, in the act of living every day. I don't think Soul will make you cry. But it will make you feel a whole lot more.

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