As the twelve month social write-off that historians will distainfully refer to as 2020 limped to the end of it’s run, one thing that managed to come into it’s own was the fledgling streaming service known as Disney+. Personal saving my sanity on a weekly basis with Season 2 of The Mandalorian, it announced that on Christmas Day (thanks to the closing of cinemas due to the continuing pandemic) it would premiere Pixar’s newest movie on the platform.
Now, regardless on your views on whether this (not to mention all the brouhaha going on with HBO Max) signifies the end of cinema going as we know it; this is another question for another time and as much as the thought of my beloved trips to the multiplex going bye bye brings a cold sweat to my brow; I have to admit it’s pretty cool to have a major release right in front of me during these uncertain times…
But enough about the never ending shit show that is 2020, and let’s get back to the business at hand – that of the world’s premiere animation house and it’s latest treat.
Joe Gardner is talented jazz musician who’s never quite gotten the breaks he feels he deserved. Cooling his heels as a music teacher, Joe finally manages to score a gig playing piano for a jazz legend and finally begins to hope that his life will change – and change it does as, in his exuberance, Joe has the misfortune to fall down an open manhole and is promptly killed.
Awaking as a ghostly white blob on on a conveyor belt leading to “The Great Beyond”, Joe realises to his mounting horror that his soul-form is about to meet it’s maker and in his ensuing panic attack manages to end up in a place known as “The Great Before”, a place where infant souls are prepped before leaving for their lives on earth. In a classic Pixar act of mistaken identity, Joe is mistakenly assumed to be a soul drafted in to teach the more troublesome souls how to pick up their various personality traits and is twinned with 22, a rebellious type who has absolutely no interest in going to earth. Once again, in a string of misadventures that are textbook Pixar, both end up back on earth, but 22 now inhabits Joe’s body (on life support in a hospital) while Joe now resides in the body of a therapy cat.
As the two attempt to get Joe back in his body in time for his first gig, 22 starts to feel that maybe being on earth isn’t such a bad thing after all, but an accountant tasked with keeping track with all the souls entering the Great Beyond is on their trail in order to get his number crunching back in line.
Can Joe manage to finally give his life meaning after a lifetime of waiting by the sidelines while helping 22 to find the spark needed to get the little whispy pain in the butt to earth?
Monsters Inc. and Inside Out director Pete Docter is quite the proven dab hand at world building but Soul may be his most audacious yet… not so much for the legitimately impressive worlds beyond, which are run by Mentors who are living abstract beings of pure cubism mostly called Jerry, but instead for the stunningly fleshed out real world which may stand out as Pixar’s most lushly realised animation yet. Sumptuously lit jazz clubs and bustling street scenes somehow manage to measure up favourably to the more outlandish dreamscapes and concepts that will regularly have you going – “And this is for children?”.
Merging raw surrealism of Inside Out with the same, playful mulling about the huge subject of the afterlife that also popped up in the vibrant Coco which interestingly makes it the third Pixar release out of the last five to directly tackle the subject of popping your clogs with the third being Onward (Pixar seems curiously dedicated of late to trying to diligently pitch the afterlife as an unthreatening fantasy land to the little ones).
The characters are nicely sketched with some solid voice work coming from leads Jaime Foxx and Tina Fey with Angela Bassett, Richard Ayoade, Wes Studi, Daveed Digs and Rachel House providing able backup – although chat show host and comedian Graham Norton as bohemian, sign twirling dimention hopper Moonwind is an enjoyably left-field addition.
However, for all of it’s impressive concepts and brain breaking themes, Soul doesn’t doesn’t seem to have that story telling polish that you’d usually expect from the good people at Pixar. The usual buddy movie shenanigans, obviously put in place to ease the huge ideas along, worked far better in Inside Out and and a rather clumsy ending feels more abrupt than enigmatic and it also feels oddly frothy considering we’re dealing with actual matters of life and death.
It feels like Pixar’s straining to overtly try and match the boundless worlds conjured up by Studio Ghibli while still keeping that wry sense of humor and boundless acres of heart that’s carried them through since even before Toy Story and the results end up being a tad chaotic.
And yet that tremendous sense of humor and heart ultimately wins through in the end, such is the Pixar guarantee – you will laugh and you will sob at many multiple moments. It’s also hugely gratifying to see black character (who also happens to be gasp middle aged) dealing with adult, existential issues in a film that’s also meant to hold the attention of the ankle bites as it enthralls their parents, who will no doubt take much more from the experience than their unwitting spawn who have no idea of the anxiety and doubt that await some of them once adult life goes a few rounds with them.
But that’s Pixar through and through, isn’t it? By giving us a film where one of our leads is terrified for his life to end while the other is terrified for their life to start, they’ve given us yet another quirky parable that arms us against the strains of modern life.
It may not be perfect, but Soul proves to have plenty of it’s namesake.