A triumph in animation and music, Soul is a necessary film for 2020 with grand ideas that feels like the convergence of an entire studio's filmography. Pete Doctor is four for four.
In 2001, Pete Docter directed Pixar’s Monsters Inc., which investigated childhood psychology whilst offering a parable for renewable energy. In 2009 he directed Up which told the story of an elderly man fulfilling a childhood dream after his wife’s death. In 2015 Docter directed Inside Out which personified the emotions of a young girl and detailed the complexities of growing up and memory. It is a career shaped by increasingly bolder ideas about humanity, but with his new release Soul, Docter goes even further as he questions existence, life and purpose.
Jamie Foxx voices Joe Gardner, a music teacher with an infectious passion for jazz. Playing the piano is his calling, and Joe wants an opportunity to prove himself. This comes in the form of Dorothea Williams, a musical legend who gives Joe the chance to prove himself in a performance. However, the day before he is due to play, Joe falls down a manhole and into some sort of astral plane in the form of his soul. Avoiding the “Great Beyond” and accidentally entering the “Great Before”, Joe must navigate a way back into his body on Earth. He is assisted by Tina Fey’s 22, a disenchanted soul who is yet to find her ‘spark’. In many ways the story echoes that of Inside Out: two conflicting characters journeying around some metaphysical world in order to get back to somewhere, all the while unearthing what makes us human.
Soul was originally planned for a cinematic release in the summer but was ultimately rescheduled for a Disney+ release on Christmas Day, with no extra charge. This is a colossal shame as Soul contains some astonishing animation, even for Pixar’s standards. From the microscopic detail of people’s faces to the way light plays off surfaces, it is another achievement for the company’s computer whiz kids. Even more so, the visuals are striking and deserved to be seen on the big screen: the abstract staircase leading to the wormhole-like Great Beyond, an awesome solar system, a pink ship with a peace symbol anchor gliding across a murky blue landscape. It is a cinematic film, and it’s saddening that the streaming release will lessen its cultural impact, displaying more like another product to consume as opposed to the slab of animated art that it is.
Accompanying these lucid visuals is a superb score. Jon Batiste provides the upbeat jazz music of New York whilst Trent Raznor and Atticus Ross (the Nine Inch Nails duo behind David Fincher’s recent films) supply a score, sounding less Michael Giacchino and more Aphex Twin, that works tremendously well for sequences within the Great Before. These same sequences also include some delightful voice-work from Richard Ayoade and Rachel House as two workers within the Astral plane amusingly named Jerry and Terry.
Feeling at times like the rendered child of La La Land and Ikiru; Soul takes the former’s visual style and fondness for jazz and fuses it with the life-affirming philosophies of the latter. The themes would be ambitious in a live-action film, but to form the entirety of a $150 million animated film aimed at families, it borders on the insane. This is where Soul might falter for a mainstream audience as it’s not as marketable or merchandise friendly as other Pixar films, and it lacks a human surrogate for younger viewers to attach to, unlike Coco or Brave. Joe is certainly an intriguing character, demonstrated in an early scene where his boss happily offers him the full-time job as band teacher. Joe is dismayed by this ‘good’ news as it comes at the cost of his personal aspirations, setting up a conflict that resurges during a later conversation with his mother (note the smooth camera pan around her shoulders to mark the change in tone). Joe is a character for the adults in the audience, not the children. As someone with very little to show for his life, it is the older generations that will relate to him and will be the ones most moved by the inevitable (and slightly predictable) ending on how to live.
Soul may not live on by having memorable characters and clever comedy, and younger audiences may not appreciate what is actually happening until they are older, but the film does contain sequences of Pixar at its wordless best: the emotional value of mementos, everyday objects and the indescribable moments in life that we take for granted, epitomised in the falling of a helicopter leaf into the palm of a hand. It is a beautiful experience, one that is hard to truly put into words, yet the ideas and visuals should bestow upon it a longer-lasting life than most other 2020 releases. How is that for meta?
Soul, directed by Pete Docter, is available to stream now via Disney+, certificate PG.