It’s a huge relief to see Pixar diving into uncharted waters again. After the sequels Monsters University and Toy Story 4, there were murmurs that the once fearlessly original animation studio had assimilated a little too enthusiastically into the folds of the gelatinous, ever-expanding entertainment entity (and future Global Overlords) Disney, forever doomed to produce Cars prequels – at least until the day humanity evolves beyond the need for children.
Cheerfully, that doesn’t seem to be the case; Pixar’s latest is a clever, heart-warming story that celebrates creativity, humility, and humanity, like some combination of Ratatouille, It’s a Wonderful Life and Inside Out, marinated in the messy, improvisational spirit of free-form Jazz. Jamie Foxx voices Joe Gardener, a middle of the road, middle-school band teacher who, after landing the gig of his dreams, falls down an open manhole cover to his apparent death. Waking up on an escalator to ‘The Great Beyond’, Joe’s disembodied soul simply refuses to die, eventually finding itself in ‘The Great Before’ and on a mission to return to his Earthly body.
Pixar have always excelled in this particular field; transforming tricky, intangible concepts like that of the human mind and ‘the monsters in the closet’ into corporeal realities. The scenes in the ‘Great Beyond’ and ‘Great Before’ (re-branded as the “You Seminar”, where fledgling souls find their ‘spark’) are smart, hilarious explorations of such ideas, expertly blending the deadpan, fantastical bureaucracy of Monsters Inc. with philosophical musings on life and death, by way of visual homages to cubist art, classic sci-fi and trippy, Michel Gondry-esque dreamscapes.
Thankfully – considering this is a film about appreciating life while you’re alive – the Earth-bound sequences are just as inviting; the shabby classrooms, busy NY streets and smoky, cosmopolitan Jazz clubs are rendered in such peerless detail as to feel transportive, though this has arguably become standard practice for Pixar. Therefore, it’s the character design that takes Soul another step ahead: the often unremarkable look of Pixar’s human characters is swept aside in favour of almost caricature-like designs that succeed in conveying years of backstory in an instant.
Soul’s casting offers another pleasant surprise. Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey are predictably fantastic as Joe and 22, yet seem hopelessly conventional next to the off- kilter, international smorgasbord of voice talent on display. Graham Norton’s flamboyant, sign-twirling, DIY zen master Moonwind is a high-camp, high-concept, potentially high highlight. Elsewhere, Richard Ayoade and Alice Braga bolster the eccentric cast as benevolent, inter-dimensional soul caretakers – collectively known as Counsellor Jerry (or, “the coming together of all the quantised fields of the universe” to our feeble, human brains).
It is Rachael House however, as the hilariously inept soul accountant Terry, who makes a lasting impression. Besides her God-tier character design (a tightly coiled, two-dimensional Picasso who travels along railings and electrical lines to pop in and out of proceedings), Terry is simply the funniest, most memorable presence in the movie. House resurrects her whisper-voiced, militantly suspicious Child Protective Services agent from Hunt for the Wilderpeople to genius effect, delivering her dialogue like a desperately insecure Kiwi Terminator.
Like Ratatouille, Inside Out and Wall-E before it, Soul presents more as ‘one for the grown-ups’, and as such (pardon the pun) the soul-searching, existential discussions about the meaning of life and mortality might leave the younglings a little cold. Despite featuring some of the most mature themes and philosophical musings tackled by Pixar, the movie doesn’t quite commit to them, and precious time that could have been used for character development is instead spent on a wacky human/cat body-swap scenario in the second act. It is still charming and imaginative, but just feels a tad distracting given the film’s more sombre, bittersweet mood.
Overall though, Soul is a gorgeously animated, darkly comic rumination on purpose, passion and finding inspiration in the little things in life. Despite never quite reaching the peak of its emotional potential, Pete Doctor’s latest is a smart, funny, innovative ode to artistry that re-affirms Pixar’s commitment to ambitious and original storytelling.
Soul is available to stream now on Disney+.