Soul is the latest film from Disney-Pixar, and is another in a lengthening line of movies from the studio to push the boundaries of the kind of stories generally told to children using glossy computer generated animation.
Directed by Pete Docter (Up, Inside Out), and Kemp Powers, Soul tells the story of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a talented jazz pianist who never quite made it, and who ekes out a living teaching band class to indifferent children, while dreaming of loftier things. When his dream finally comes true and he’s given a spot in a notable jazz quartet, fate takes a cruel turn and he suddenly finds himself on a conveyer belt to the eternal void. Desperate to realise his dream, Joe manages to escape and explores the rest of the astral plane in his attempt to return to earth, along the way befriending an unborn soul, voiced by Tina Fey.
As one expects from this studio, the animation is outstanding. In the early days of Pixar the animators stated that their biggest challenge was to render realistic human characters. In the earth-bound sections of Soul it is obvious that this is a challenge that has now been fully overcome. The human characters appear solid, and their movements entirely real. Watching the film one never feels that they’re looking at animated humans, but at real humans that have been made to look like cartoon characters. The effect is astonishing. The sections of the film that take place in the astral plane are equally impressive in their own way, with the celestial beings that run things represented as bright, almost one dimensional, Picasso-esque line drawings. Soul assuredly sets a new high-water mark for computer generated animation.
The story and characters are also brilliantly realised. Joe is a man who considers himself a failure because his purpose, to become a successful jazz musician, has been left unrealised. No one believes in him, and one can feel the soul crushing impact that trying to inspire disinterested children to play music has on him. This is then contrasted with the heavenly effect that performing jazz has on Joe, his face filling with rapture as his fingers dance across the keys. The scenes that show Joe at the piano are as hypnotic and transporting as they are meant to be and are some of the strongest moments in the film. When Joe moves into the astral plane, the world beyond our own that Pete Docter and crew have created is elegantly simple and coherent, with a set of rules that perfectly serve the narrative, and yet still manages to brim with imagination and colourful characters, though none, it must be said, are likely to be as memorable as Bing Bong, or Joy from Docter’s previous masterpiece, Inside Out.
In truth, Soul is not quite perfect. The film starts off akin to the great Powell and Pressburger film, A Matter of Life and Death, but in its middle act turns into a variation of Freaky Friday. This portion of the film could have provided the kind of light-hearted comic moments that Soul needs to appeal to smaller children, but doesn’t quite deliver. This leads one to contemplate the probability that Soul is actually more for adults than it is for children. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine the measured pace and contemplative tone of Soul appealing to little ones. This point isn’t meant to question the quality of the film, but it’s legitimate to mention that Soul may not appeal to the younger end of Pixar’s core audience. Serious film goers will likely adore the film, but will adults want to see an animated film that they think is designed for children, and will they be able to enjoy it with a small child wriggling beside them?
Pixar is a studio that isn’t afraid to tackle big questions and difficult subjects, and Soul’s big question is the biggest of them all: the meaning of life. Obviously it would be bad form to spoil the answer to the meaning of life in a mere film review; suffice to say Soul provides a simple, digestible message that may just leave audiences contemplating the way they’ve conducted themselves from moment to moment throughout their lives. The film’s aim appears to be to make us take a step back from our craven goals and aspirations and instead enjoy every bit of being alive, the miraculous beauty of our existence. In that it is fully successful.
Soul is a beautifully realised, thought-provoking film that is yet another step forward for Pixar on all fronts, and may leave audience members wondering what they’ve been doing all their lives.
Film ’89 Verdict – 9/10
Soul is currently available on Disney+.