Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Soul (a movie review post)


Pixar has not been my favorite production company of late. After spending more than a decade as Hollywood's golden child that could do no wrong, they ended that run with Toy Story 3. Their movies after that, with only a few exceptions, became formulaic and, well, boring. I've said previously that I believe that was due to the loss of John Lasseter as their creative guide. I still mostly stand by that. Since 2010, only three of their movies stand out as something more than ordinary. Two of those were by Pete Docter, this being one of them.

The first thing I'm going to say is how... wonderful... yes, wonderful, it is to have a movie "about" jazz that isn't made by fucking Damien Chazelle. There's nothing in this about how the white savior man is going to save jazz from... I don't know. It was never really clear what Chazelle thought he was saving jazz from. Itself, probably, since Chazelle seems to believe that jazz was made for the white man, and it can't be trusted in the hands of the people who invented it.

This movie isn't really about jazz and doesn't have a whole lot of jazz in it. Which is fine, because I'm not much of a jazz fan. I don't hate it or anything, but it's not something I'm just going to turn on if I feel like some music. In fact, the movie isn't about music at all. It's about dreams. Life dreams, not the ones you have when you're asleep and forget promptly when you wake up. Or, maybe, it's about inspiration. That's the word, or a word, they use in the movie. 

But that's not really right, either. The movie is about living your life and not just... drifting through it. It's about not letting fear get in the way of pursuing the things that spark you. From a casual distance, it's a beautiful movie. It has some endearing and some poignant moments.

It also has some issues, which I will try to point out without being spoilery.

Joe is a musician, a jazz musician. He's been chasing that lucky break all his life. His mother wants him to get a real job. A permanent one. Not that he doesn't work. He teaches music, but he's not, evidently, a permanent teacher or anything like that. The conflict at the opening of the movie is that he's been offered a permanent teaching position, and he's torn over whether to accept it or not because, for some reason, if he acceptd a position as a music teacher he'll have to, for whatever reason, no longer accept gigs playing in clubs and bars. Um... The dude's not married and has no kids. This is an artificial conflict. Do I give up on my dream of being a "musician" by taking the teaching job or not?

There is also the subtle implication that Joe has not been adequately pursuing his dream because he hasn't been successful at becoming a "musician." There are scenes of him doing other life stuff, like watching TV and doing laundry, which are there to suggest that these are times when Joe was failing to pursue his calling. What the fuck is that about? No one can spend 24/7 doing one thing and one thing only. That he has not "made it" is not because he has not adequately pursued his dream.

And there is the complete dismissal of the importance Joe has played in the lives of the students he's taught and their own inspiration toward music because of him. It's like those things, though important, do not actually matter because those things have come at the expense of Joe's own success. Or something like that.

Maybe I'm being too harsh, but I don't really think these are good messages to be handing out. Not that I think these are messages that are really intended, but the framework of the movie delivers them anyway. If you are not famous and "successful," you have failed your dream. You have failed to pursue it adequately. It's our cultural belief, and it's ingrained in the movie, which is too bad, because there could have been a deeper message.

All of which may sound like I didn't like the movie, which would be incorrect. It's one of the top three Pixar movies of the past decade, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It came close to bringing tears to my eyes. I would gladly watch it again. And I might, since it's streaming on Disney+. None of which changes the fact that I wish that Docter had gone just a little bit further with the movie and not relied so heavily on our societal views of achievement and success. It's a really good movie, just not a great one.


  1. I've been hearing good things. I'm sure we'll check it out at some point. Glad to know you enjoyed it.

  2. There seems to be a lot of the message "you have to always be working otherwise you're a failure" these days.

    1. Jeanne: Well, you know, it's a very conservative value, protestant work ethic and all of that. Of course, it only applies to the not-rich.

  3. The idea that taking time off from work is a personal and professsional failure is hardwired into Americans. And now I guess we're seeing it get drilled into kids at a younger age than ever.

    I will probably eventually watch this. I agree with you about Pixar's decline. I didn't care for Toy Story 4 at all. Onward, though, was very likable. I also really liked Brave, which is underrated.

    I blame Disney acquiring them. Disney homogenizes everything. Look at the final 3 Star Wars: 2 of the 3 were bland remixes of Star Wars. Say what you will about the 3 prequels but you cant accuse Lucas of not trying to tell a story rather than pander.

    Pixar became Disneyfied, too: their movies didn't challenge anything or try very hard. I'd rather they keep pushing the envelope and fail sometimes than just make basic junk.

    1. Briane: I think the problems with Pixar and Star Wars are more complicated than that Disney acquired them. Disney actually tried to let them do their own thing.
      With Pixar, the problem was that Disney actually acquired Lesseter and put him in charge of other things with only token oversight of Pixar. It resulted in Disney's own animation studio films getting better but a lack of direction at Pixar.
      -- I found Onward cliche. It was fine but completely unoriginal or inspiring.
      -- I did a review on Brave outlining my problems with it, most of which have to do with the fact the girl is rewarded, in the end, for what she did.
      -- TS4 was... I don't know. Fine? It wasn't bad. I was glad they did a movie, basically, about Bo Beep, but it didn't have much substance to it.

      The problem with Star Wars was Kathleen Kennedy. I could go on about this for a long time, but Kennedy was a mistake. They're trying to fix that, now, through the TV series, so I guess we'll see what happens.

      I could make some comparisons, here, to how they handled Marvel (because that's what they were trying to replicate) but, in the end, it comes down to the fact that they allowed Kennedy, someone who has admitted to never really getting or understanding Star Wars, to knife the franchise. Several times.

      Anyway... good to heard from you!

  4. I had to go back and read this post, as I obviously missed it. It's always interesting to see what each person gets from a film. I like your insights.

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