Film Editor Sam Denyer dives into Pixar’s newest film, Soul, and is impressed by its ambition and emotional intelligence
Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) loves music. It’s what gets him up in the morning and brightens his day while teaching middle school band, where his students are rarely so enthusiastic. Naturally, he is ecstatic when he lands a gig performing with jazz virtuoso Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) who is sceptical of his teaching background but impressed by his piano skills. It’s the first day of the rest of his life; that is until he falls down a manhole and dies, blinded by his own euphoria. His soul ends up on an escalator to the Great Beyond. Unprepared for this fate, he leaps off and lands in the Great Before, where souls are given their personalities before connecting with their bodies on Earth. Here, he meets 22 (Tina Fey) a deviant soul who has yet to discover the ‘spark’ which will ready her for life on Earth.
This is merely the opening salvo of Soul, Pixar’s twenty-third feature film and director Pete Docter’s fourth effort with the studio. It is a stirring and suitably thoughtful addition to his body of work, which also includes Monsters Inc., Up and Inside Out. The latter is Soul‘s closest cousin, mirroring its meticulous world-building and vividly realising concepts as abstract as desire, personality and depression. Like Inside Out, Soul is thrillingly audacious in its ambition and maturity. Joe’s journey is essentially a mid-life crisis writ large through Pixar’s prism of boundless imagination. Its message of appreciating the little things in life appropriates classic family fare but Docter transforms it into something far greater. Joe and 22 realise that life often passes without revealing any grand purpose or offering the chance to derive any kind of concrete meaning from the passions which seem designed to make us who we are. Music may thrill Joe, but positioning it as the be-all and end-all, he realises, is not the path to ultimate fulfilment. One cathartic montage on this subject towards the film’s end is as vitalising a sequence as Pixar has ever put on screen.
Docter’s production team is more than up to the challenge of these lofty ideas. The design of the Great Beyond, channelling A Matter of Life and Death, effectively evokes the poignancy and finality of a literal stairway to heaven. The Great Before is even more abstract, an ocean of pastel tones which acts as the backdrop to personality houses staffed by counsellors comprised of conflicting 2D lines and the polite enthusiasm of corporate middle management. It is a perfect setting for 22’s identity crisis, a literal sandbox allowing Docter to physically depict depression and anxiety even more effectively than in Inside Out.
Some of the Earth sections are more conventional in their comedic tone, but Pixar continue to out-do themselves visually. The shimmer of Dorothea’s saxophone, the curls of Joe’s hair and the gleam of the sunlight on his skin are immaculately realised; a love letter to New York City in a manner which is completely in keeping with the film’s moral message. Similarly, Docter and co-director Kemp Powers smartly centre the film on a mostly Black cast, a first for a Pixar film, paying tribute to the importance of African-American culture in the development of jazz. Soul‘s clear reverence for these experiences only further bolsters the strength of its ethos. Docter is an incredibly sincere and optimistic filmmaker and the presence of Powers behind the camera is indicative of a fresh creative direction for the studio. His search for different talent does not end here: Jon Batiste offers an effective jazz soundtrack on Earth while Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s New Age score is perfect for The Great Before. Elsewhere, Richard Ayoade, Alice Braga and Rachel House are the warmly pushy staff of The Great Before. Docter’s willingness to rope in new talent or make unconventional choices is promising for the future of Pixar under his stewardship as the new Chief Creative Officer.
Such is the weight of its ambitions that a couple of beats towards the end of Soul don’t entirely track, but this is a small price to pay given the effectiveness of its final moments. Docter and Powers are willing to look beyond Disney’s classical conceptions of destiny and true purpose to reassure us that everyday life can be equally rewarding, a message needed this year of all years. Effectively addressing the cultural zeitgeist is hard but Soul manages without even trying, a compelling sign of the cogency of its ideas and the strength of its convictions.
Soul is another embarrassment of riches from Pixar: ambitious, visually remarkable, voiced by a game cast and filled with warm and touching grace notes from directors Pete Docter and Kemp Powers. One of the best films of the year.
Soul is now streaming on Disney+.