2020 has been a strange year for movies. The future of the theater, already in question with the rise of streaming services (and movie ticket costs) and recent developments such as MoviePass, became even murkier in a global pandemic. Many movie theaters closed in March and haven’t opened since, including those in my home state of Maryland.
Reactions to the sudden halt have varied from studio to studio. Christopher Nolan pushed through by releasing his thriller Tenet in theaters after multiple short postponements, but he was in the minority. Films like the James Bond installment No Time To Die and Black Widow pushed their release dates back, while other films skipped the theater to go straight to digital streaming services, including the live action Mulan (which streamed for an absurd $30 additional cost to Disney+ subscribers). And with the pandemic not only closing theaters for movie releases but also complicating the production of new films, the movie landscape of the next couple years could end up pretty barren. It’s a wild time to be a movie.
Which brings us to Pixar, arguably my favorite studio and one that holds a very special place in my heart. The stream of Pixar content has been consistent over the years (at least one film per year since 2015), and with a couple films nearing release at the onset of the pandemic, Pixar seemed to be a fascinating case study. Would Pixar, a studio known for its innovative ways, blaze a new trail for promotion? Or would Disney finagle whatever they could out of the box office?
Ultimately, Disney took the hit and pivoted away from a theater-first strategy. Disney added Onward to the Disney+ streaming catalog in March after just a couple weeks in theaters, then announced in the fall that it would be sending the already delayed Soul straight to Disney+ with a Christmas Day release date, but without the $30 additional fee gambit used with Mulan. The financials will obviously be lower than if the box office was fully in session (I’m guessing it will be more about Disney+ subscriptions than individual returns), but with a corporation as big as Disney, they can absorb the blow and the strategy makes sense.
All this to say — the context surrounding Soul is important and makes Soul more than just another movie. Actually, I think the context makes the Soul experience better because we need a movie like Soul right now.
Soul follows Joe Gardner (played by Jamie Foxx), a middle school band teacher with dreams of becoming a big-time jazz musician like his father. Just before he has the chance for his big break, he falls through a manhole and ends up in the Great Before, an ethereal realm where souls get their characteristics and prepare to live their lives. Gardner wants to get back to his life, but his trip is far from a linear path.
Soul’s premise is out there, but in the hands of Pixar vet Pete Docter (Monsters Inc., Up, Inside Out), it doesn’t fizzle. The story takes about as much time in modern New York as the imaginative Great Before. The decision is a good choice, because both the abstract world of the Great Before lacks the backbone to carry the whole story and because Gardner’s New York is so brilliantly realized, from a fantastic barbershop scene to the lure of the jazz clubs Gardner frequents.
Pixar took a lot of care in telling a story in large part about the Black experience and is on the money in this regard. The authenticity shines, highlighting one of the best aspects of this new era of Pixar storytelling and pushing the comfort zone of how Pixar has told stories in the past.
Pixar has also hit the nail on the head when it comes to its utilization of the animation medium. The Pixar animators are certainly capable of photo realistic animation (Toy Story 4 was breathtaking in that regard), but they wisely keep that tool in the toolbox and went with a more caricaturist renditions of characters and movements. That said, Soul features a dazzling color palette and the animation feels inviting and almost improvisational, just like the jazzy theme.
The main takeaway is, well, the soul of Soul. Docter’s concept and execution is so original that viewers can’t know the next turn — this type of story has no precedent. But through all those twists and turns, Soul sends a message about humanity that makes the movie feel more important than almost any installment in the Pixar catalog.
To make a comparison to a book, Soul is the Pixar equivalent of The Brothers Karamazov epic novel that I read for my Russian Literature class last year. Thankfully, there are no despicable families or schemes, but the “sticky green leaves” motif in Brothers K that I had to write an essay on is what this movie is all about. Except instead of that idea being a near footnote in a 950-page book, Soul makes the concept its centerpiece and uses the joys of animation to make that message accessible to audiences of all ages.
On its own merits, Soul is a valuable movie and a light of inspiration in a dark time, definitely in my top two movies of 2020 (disclaimer: I have only seen two 2020 movies). As a Pixar enthusiast, I also feel obligated to rank it in the context of the Pixar catalog. Here’s the list prior to Soul, ranked in tiers:
I think Soul slots nicely into a B Tier Pixar movie (which is the equivalent of an A for pretty much any other studio). The idea of the Great Before didn’t land on its feet and the film falls short of the Riker Scale Top 100 as a result, but Soul‘s vigor and relevance make it more than a run of the mill Pixar film. This one definitely deserves a rewatch.
Circling back around, Soul‘s context actually helps its case as a strong Pixar movie. I’d look at 2015 as a relevant precedent. 2015 saw two Pixar movies come out: Inside Out and Good Dinosaur. Inside Out, the summer release, became a phenomenon that high school health teachers are still riding to this day. A couple months later, Good Dinosaur was relegated to the shadows. It’s not a remotely good movie, but on its own with significant promotion, it could have at least had some box office success to validate it as a Pixar movie.
By moving it to Christmas and taking the box office hit, Disney moved Soul from the backburner to center stage and positioned it to resonate with audiences. Not only does Soul have a great message, but its accessible distribution via Disney+ gives it the runway for that message to connect with audiences and not fall flat or hide in the shadows. When you have a light like Soul, you have to let it shine. Disney did exactly that, whether or not the financial bottom line shows it.
Riker Scale Score: 80 out of 100