There is something compulsively watchable about Pixar’s movies; from Toy Story onwards, the photo-realistic depiction of imaginary worlds was a USP, and led to a fruitful alliance with Disney, who essentially provided the same function via hand-drawn and then computer-assisted animation for previous decades. But Pixar’s empire was build on more than just great visuals; from Toy Story 2 onwards, there was an inbuilt philosophical sophistication that made their brand appealing to adults too. Attempts to tamp this down (The Good Dinosaur) were not popular; with movies like Inside Out and Coco, Pixar began wrestling with the big questions of life and death, and developing the kind of existential angst first hinted at in Buzz Lightyear’s on-going understanding of just who he is.
After working on Monsters Inc, which also attracted adults with more than just mom-and-pop gags, Pete Docter has shot high again with Soul, an elaborate body-swap comedy that marries a unique, seductive visual palate with some thoughts that marry religion and science in a way that’s designed to avoid conflict with existing beliefs. Jamie Foxx plays Joe, a music teacher with designs on being a jazz pianist. After a successful audition, he falls down a man-hole cover and on a stairway to heaven, or at least some form of afterlife. Teamed up with another lost soul, 22, voiced by Tina Fey, the two head back to the real world, only to find themselves in the wrong bodies; he’s now inside a cat, while she’s inside the musician’s figure. Putting this error aside, the two start a long road back to finding their place in a universe where life and death isn’t a firm barrier.
Pixar have a remarkable track-record for maintaining high-standards, and Soul is straight out of their top drawer in terms of conception. As Joe dances down a busy street after his big break, a brief shot of a homeless man and a boarded up store ominously foreshadows the collapse of his world; while bright and colourful, this is a complex world where good and bad things co-exist. The body-swap element is fun, although similar to 2020’s Onwards, but Foxx and Fey have great fun with their performances, and there’s also a stand-out bit from Richard Ayoade as a soul counsellor in the Great Before, one stage short of the Great Beyond. The animation is also creative, with moments which recall Scottish/Canadian Norman McClaren and his own brand of animated jazz.
There’s a positive message here, about how understanding death may be the first stage in enjoying life, and it’s fun seeing how Joe and 22 gain from each other’s different experiences of life. Like Onwards, this may not have the immediate iconic appeal of Pixar’s most-loved projects, but it would be hard to argue against Soul being one of 2020’s most comforting, pleasurable films. Not just for kids, this is a smart, slick, thoughtful movie that should introduce kids of all ages to jazz, philosophy and comedy alike.
Thanks to Disney for access to this movie. UK link below.