Directors: Pete Doctor, Kemp Powers
Screenwriters: Pete Doctor, Kemp Powers, Mike Jones
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Questlove, Angela Bassett
This is not how any of us wanted to experience the latest dazzling release from Pixar Animation Studios for the first time, but whether or not it was the right decision to drop Soul on Disney+ while much the world was locked down, we might as well be grateful we can watch some nourishing animation from home.
Part-time music teacher Joe Gardiner (Jamie Foxx) is in a rut. While he still dreams of turning his passion for jazz piano into his full-time career, his family and friends warn him of a need for stability and secure employment as he enters middle age. Three things then happen to Joe in quick succession – his school offers him the full-time band teacher post, he gets the opportunity to play a gig with a jazz legend, and he falls down an open manhole to his death. In the Great Beyond, Joe isn’t all that happy about his sudden departure – “the very day I got my shot” – so he sets his sights on returning to his body by any means, seeing a promising opportunity when he is assigned to mentor a mischievous soul (Tina Fey), his duty in this new role being to talk her into existing on Earth as all other souls are destined to do.
Soul would make a great double-bill with Powell and Pressberger’s A Matter of Life and Death. This is an afterlife (and a before-life) run as a bureaucracy with every soul accounted for. The being responsible for the bookkeeping here, and the closest Soul has to an antagonist, is the obsessive “Terry” (Rachel House), and much like Conductor 71 in A Matter of Life and Death, it falls to Terry to correct the universe’s mistake and get an errant soul back to where it belongs.
Similarly to Pete Doctor’s previous high-concept animation Inside Out, Soul is definitely a film that will be appreciated more by parents than their children. The big questions come at us thick and fast: Are we born with our personalities fully-formed and predisposed to certain passions, or do we fall into both at random? What came before life and what comes after? Do we have to find the meaning of this thing we call life on our own? And, is the only true meaning of life to actually live it?
A lot is made of what makes us who we are, how what we grow to love guides the course of our life. Is Joe’s spark, or inspiration, or x-factor (whatever you want to call it), really his love of music? Is his ambition and need for success in his art smothering the joy he gets just from playing and teaching others to play?
Soul looks like nothing else out there, frequently switching art styles to express different ideas and boldly tackling such concepts as eternity, the afterlife, spirit and drive. Joe falls from full-CG animation into hand-drawn chalkboard animation and back again as he enters the Great Before, a surrealist realm of fuzzy blue grass and shifting magnolia marshmallowy things, all overseen by the Picasso-esque cubist “Jerrys” (Alice Braga and Richard Ayoade) who assign personalities and prepare souls for life on Earth.
Of course, being a Pixar film, this is really funny as well as being thoughtful and visually stunning. There’s some very well choreographed slapstick antics involving body-swapping in the middle section of the film, and clever one-liners for the grownups (the soul of Carl Jung screaming “Stop talking! My unconscious mind hates you!”). Joe’s school band butchering the Disney fanfare over the famous castle studio logo certainly sets the tone at the beginning of the film.
Representation matters, and Doctor, co-director Kemp Powers and co-writer Mike Jones, have crafted a story rooted in a distinct and specific African-American New York experience. We so rarely see the range of human characters seen here in animation and it’s films like this and Into the Spider-Verse that are giving under-represented communities their pride of place on screen. These faces and these voices are out there and ready to inspire, to create wonderful art and culture – visibility is the first step.
The story admittedly takes some easy shortcuts, adds some unneeded extra jeopardy for the final act and isn’t quite brave enough to commit to consequences of real life and real death. That said, this still stands as one of Pixar’s more mature offerings and you probably don’t want to traumatise the little ones too much.
This will hit particularly hard with anyone who has lost passion, drive and purpose in their life. Soul strikes the balance between romanticism and realism, the conceptual, philosophical stuff giving way late in the film to something profound, grounded and human. The beauty, vibrancy and yes, soul, of Soul will help you to re-appreciate what makes life worth living and will leave you with questions ranging from “Who am I, really?” to “Whose bizarre idea was it to cast Graham Norton in a Pixar film?”.