BEST OF SAC STATE: Is “Soul” the best film of 2020?

New Pixar film hits right notes, but does little new

Bradley Hinkson

For this year’s Best of Sac State, Sacramento State students decided on “Soul” as the best film of 2020. 2020 was a strange year for film, with many delayed or stuck on streaming, but where do I think “Soul” fits in with the other films of the year?


“Soul” features a lot of the stunning animation we’ve come to expect from Pixar and a nice message on letting life play out as it is, but it doesn’t quite have the spark to make it one of the best films from the studio.

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Joe Gardner, voiced by Jamie Foxx, is a middle school band teacher with a love for all things jazz. When Joe finds himself with the opportunity of a lifetime, he also finds himself as a soul separated from his own body. Joining up with the difficult soul 22, voiced by Tina Fey, Joe must find a way back to his body or miss the chance of achieving his purpose in the jazz world.

The first 20 or so minutes of “Soul” are quite stellar. The pure imagination and wonder of Pete Docter, director of other Pixar films such as “Inside Out,” “Up” and “Monsters Inc.,’ are on full display with the true uniqueness of The Great Beyond and Before that Joe finds himself in.

From the soul counselors all named Jerry to the zone where souls go when they enter a state of euphoria, there’s a lot of wit and imagination on display. It all moves a little too fast, though, making you want to spend a bit more time in each new area.

For comparison, the major appeal of Docter’s “Inside Out” was being able to discover all these different areas of main character Riley’s mind through the whole runtime. Since “Soul” has a predetermined destination outside of The Great Before, we don’t get as much time there to really appreciate it. Then, when the film leaves that area, some of the biggest problems arise.

When Joe and 22 leave The Great Before, the film turns into a body swap comedy as 22 ends up in Joe’s body while Joe ends up in the body of a cat. Incredibly messy race implications aside, this feels like such an odd choice to make story wise. Why build up such a unique concept to just have it go into an uninspired kid movie plot? Also, with the story headed in this direction, it causes Joe to take a backseat and makes this 22’s story. Which comes as no surprise as 22 in first drafts was the main character and focused more on the world of souls.

With 22 in Joe’s body, she gets to have her arc of loving Earth and wanting to have a life while Joe’s arc feels like a second thought that gets rushed by the end. The second half of the film suffers from what feels like confusion. Who does it want to be about? 22 or Joe? These two character arcs also get lost in the film’s broad ideas and themes on life.

The film’s message that we should “go with the flow” rather than be overly focused on a single purpose is welcome, especially in something directed toward kids that isn’t afraid to confront them about their own mortality. But, other Pixar films like “Up,” “Coco” and even the “Toy Story” films have found more interesting ways to delve into our purposes of life.

Crafting a film about how our own individuality is sometimes worth more than using ourselves for others by using toys in something like “Toy Story 4” is far more interesting than most of what the film is trying to do here.

Not to say that there aren’t any moments in the second half that don’t work.

The antagonist Terry, voiced by Rachel House, is a soul accountant obsessed with tracking down Joe to make sure the count of souls stays on track. Terry is such a fun character mostly due to House’s voice performance, someone just doing their job who deserves a little bit of recognition from their higher ups, honestly an icon.

And even if the film struggles to maintain a more cohesive narrative with balancing these two character arcs, it’s still watchable. The film tackles so many different ideas that it’s hard not to at least attach to something that will grab your attention. It’s never boring.

That’s the best way to describe this film, admittedly flawed but still watchable. The humor works and a good batch of the characters are fun to go on this journey with, but you also get the feeling that we’ve seen this done better in other Pixar films.

This feels like a greatest hits playlist for Pixar, recycling ideas from a lot of other films to make something good, but not very original. Like a greatest hits playlist, the stuff that’s there is great, but wouldn’t something new be nice?