Delayed now until Christmas Day streaming, Pixar’s stunning animation doesn’t disappoint
Dirs. Pete Docter, Kemp Powers. USA. 2020. 100 mins
Pixar has never shied away from meaty philosophical subject matter, but with Soul, the studio gets to grips with some seriously weighty themes, to stunning effect. What is life’s purpose? Is a passion the same as a vocation? And what makes a human existence meaningful and how is it measured? Fittingly, given that the film’s life force is jazz, there’s a riffing, freeform inventiveness of approach which dances around the fact that the story plays out, partially at least, in a pensive minor key. Visually glorious, frequently very funny and genuinely profound, this is a picture which cries out to be seen on the big screen, but current plans (after a London Film Festival premiere) are to show to Disney + subscribers from December 25.
Visually glorious, frequently very funny and genuinely profound
With its themes of musical aspiration and mortality, Soul has a kinship with the 2017 Pixar production, Coco; elsewhere there is narrative overlap with pictures like Here Comes Mister Jordan and Heaven Can Wait. But the closest in terms of world-building ambition and fascination with the workings of the human mind is director Pete Docter’s previous film, Inside Out. Here, Docter shares directing and writing duties with Kemp Powers, the screenwriter behind Regina King’s One Night In Miami, who makes his directorial debut here.
The protagonist is Joe (Jamie Foxx) – Pixar’s first African American central character – a middle-aged school music teacher who, in a cruel twist of fate, fatally loses his footing at the very moment that it looked as though his life was about to take off. Joe has the chance to realise his life’s ambition and play at Manhattan’s Half Note jazz club alongside one of the greats, saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). He is most certainly not ready to die.
In his quest to extricate his soul from “the Great Beyond” and reunite it with his body back on Earth, Joe finds himself flung together with the bratty 22 (Tina Fey), an as yet unborn soul who is already jaded about life. A permanent resident of “The Great Before” – the abstract cloud world where the blank slates of pure, unsullied unborn souls get their personalities sketched in – 22 has tested the patience of hundreds of mentors, including Mother Teresa, Muhammad Ali and Galileo. With the voice of a 40-something white woman – chosen arbitrarily by her because it seemed to annoy people – 22 is just not that into the idea of being born.
That all changes when, due to psychic interference on the part of an astral-travelling former lost soul voiced by Graham Norton, 22 gets to see the world first hand, through Joe’s eyes – or the eyes of Joe’s body at least. Joe’s soul, meanwhile, is stuck in a corpulent hospital therapy cat called Mister Mittens.
As with Inside Out, the story unfolds within two distinct worlds. The ‘Great Before’ is an elastic (un)reality which is not bound by the laws of physics or, for that matter, reason. But it’s on the bustling streets of New York that the film finds its core of magic, and its focus, through transcendent uplifting moments that could be triggered by anything, from jazz piano to a swirling sycamore seed to a really great slice of pizza. The filmmakers cite the drawings of cartoonist Ronald Searle and the 1961 Disney animation 101 Dalmations as visual references, but there’s also a nod in there to the striking graphic quality of Blue Note album covers and 1950s beat art.
The two worlds are also defined by their music. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross provide a loopy, fluid score for the Great Before. But it’s jazz musician John Batiste who captures the personality of Joe’s Manhattan and gives the film its inner rhythm. Animation and jazz have always had a symbiotic relationship – Joe’s piano rhapsodies sound like the wayward relations of Vince Guaraldi’s score for A Charlie Brown Christmas. And while this picture might skew towards a slightly older audience than Pixar’s usual demographic, a whole new generation of junior jazz fans could be created as a result of Joe’s real gift – not just playing the music, but his infectious passion for it.
Production company: Pixar Animation Studios
Worldwide distribution: Disney
Producer: Dana Murray
Screenplay: Pete Docter, Mike Jones, Kemp Powers
Cinematographer: Matt Aspbury, Ian Megibben
Editor: Kevin Nolting
Production design: Steve Pilcher
Music: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, John Batiste
Main voice cast: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Ahmir-Khalib Thompson, Angela Bassett, Cora Champommier