“So good I’m surprised it’s not better” sums up how I feel about most Pixar films. They’re so polished that they seem kind of dead: expensive show dogs that have been so primped and groomed that nobody noticed the poor animal expired during its last blow-dry.

Soul is an exercise in box-ticking. It’s hip, diverse, and relevant: featuring an African American protag near the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, and showcasing jazz music when that was having a mainstream moment, too (Whiplash, La-La Land, Adam Neely…). It has an “high concept” tilt, addressing themes of life, death, and fate. It has cute characters that can be turned into toys. It has leavens serious moments with jokes at the correct places. It reaches for the stars, but also has characters that are just like you. It does everything right.

But jazz has something called “blue notes”, where a note is bent a little out of correct pitch. Magic happens on the edges, on the fault lines, on the places where Discordia fights Aneris. Soul really needed blue notes.

I thought the beginning was wonderful. A part-time music teacher is offered a) a permanent position at a job he hates, and b) a seat with a famous jazz quartet. His mom wants him to take the steady paycheck, while he wants to follow his dream (although we wonder whether his dream working for the tyrannic band leader will be as fun as he imagines.) Joe Gardner feels real in a way that most Pixar heroes don’t.

On his way to purchase a suit for the big gig, he falls down a manhole, and enters a permenant vegetative state. His spirit emerges in a kind of celestial mail-sorting room, full of souls. Some are departing for the hereafter, others are going to inhabit newly-born infants. He hatches a plan to sneak back to his body on Earth, using a rebellious soul called 22.

The movie becomes a bit too talky for its own good. A lot of time is spent explaining the mechanics by which souls operate (literalizing things that should be left unsaid), and this is when Soul stopped possessing one. As soon as characters started infodumping about the rules of their fictional universe I became very bored. This should be the part of the movie where it detonates. Joe has essentially died. He’s at the point where the chains of words and language break, the ceiling of the universe is flung open, and he’s staring up infinity’s tunnel. The possibilities should be endless.

Instead, the story gets jammed up in its own turning gears (souls must visit special “Personality Pavilions” to infuse them with personality traits, but there’s also a critical “Spark” that can only be found in the Hall of Everything, and once they have both the Spark and the Personality they can receive an Earth Pass, which allows them to…). I felt like I’d arriving late for a D&D session and the Dungeon Master insisted on explaining the minutia of the past three hours before I was allowed to play.

The best Pixar movie may have been the first. Toy Story had nearly no exposition. Toys are alive. What more do you need? Later Pixar movies held your hand a little, but there was often a reason for it. In Monsters Inc, the joke was that these freaky monsters are living in a rules-heavy bureaucracy, so it sort of made sense. But here? I think Pixar has forgotten how to make movies any other way.

Pete Docter’s 2015 monster Inside-Out seems to have set the tone for latter-day Pixar. A minimalist abstraction, with five tons of exposition clinging to its bones. It might have seemed wonderfully simple to have “anger” and “sadness” as characters. But they couldn’t figure out a way to tell a story visually, so they had to add so much in-universe lore that the movie suffered greatly for it. Docter wanted his film to fly so badly that he crushed it under the weight of huge steel wings, and something similar happens here.

This aside, the movie’s stylistic choices are almost uniformly great. The New York setting is colorful, and the jazz scenes are good. In my opinion, jazz is far more fun to play than to listen to, but it’s also enjoyable watching people play it, even when they’re animated characters.

The jokes are well-judged, with only an extended body-swap gag getting aborted before it grew too irritating. The angels look fantastic. Weird glowing coathangers, or yin-and-yang collisions of positive and negative space. Very creative stuff.

The souls themselves are sickeningly cute moppets with huge eyes, so clearly designed to be plushy dolls that you can almost see a Made in China tag hanging off them. Like much of the movie’s choices, it’s correct, but maybe not exactly good. Part of why I’m cold on Pixar films is that they all seem like a marketing team was set loose on them before a writer ever was. Antz was better than A Bug’s Life, despite its flaws. I don’t want to watch 90-minute toy commercials.

I admire Soul more than I like it. Once, as a child, I tried to make a bowl out of modeling clay. I didn’t know that potters use a wheel, so I tried to painstakingly create the same kind of smoothness with my fingers. I spent hours patting and prodding and shaping clay, until it was covered in my fingerprints. The result was a correct but loveless pot that I couldn’t stand to look at. It hurt me, because I remembered the tediousness of the process.

Soul has a similar affect. When I look at it, I don’t see a movie so much as compacted effort. Dozens of creative people sweating over every decision, trying to create something universally marketable and appealing, afraid to take any risks at all. Afraid that someone, somewhere, won’t like what they’ve made. Consumed by neurosis that they’ll have done the slightest thing wrong. The jazz theme is surface-deep: Pixar in 2020 is as far from Miles Davis as you can get.

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