Online screen editor, Jim Norman, sees the soul of the latest Pixar release
Bouncing from cinematic to a streaming release, the journey to the screen – albeit the small one – has not been an easy one for Pixar’s Soul. Yet its grand appearance on Disney+ on Christmas Day feels less of a final reveal than a personalised Christmas present from Mickey Mouse himself. For whilst Soul is about as predictable as they come, it manages to pack in the Pixar heart without ever relying on the emotional manipulation with which director Pete Docter’s last animated film, Inside Out, lost me.
After suffering from a fatal accident, aspiring jazz pianist Joe (Jamie Foxx), undergoes an out of body experience in which his only hope of returning to his old life rests in the guidance of a notoriously difficult pre-soul (Tina Fey).
This undoubtedly muddled exploration of our origin and the afterlife is a heavy theme that, in the wrong hands, could have been an ill-considered weighty blow in an otherwise depressing year. And yet Docter ensures that his message – the meaning of life no less – is heard loud and clear despite his tongue being firmly in his cheek. For this is a cuddly analysis of an otherwise difficult topic, and by considering such metaphysical questions in such an accessible way, Soul provides that titular promise that its premise so desperately needs.
This is another Pixar passion project which does for music what Ratatouille did for food
Rather than being dragged down by its themes of death and self-understanding, Soul instead focusses on the vibrancy and passion for life. Joe is not ready to leave his body behind, and as his understanding of his own personality grows, we too catch ourselves finding enjoyment in his passions. The moments of live music may lack the immediacy of a gig, yet the film breaks the jazz score down in order to examine why the piano’s keys provoke our toe-tapping response. Damien Chazelle’s La La Land sought to take us by the hand and explain the joys of jazz, while Soul is more content to sit in on a session and let the rhythm do the talking. This is another Pixar passion project which does for music what Ratatouille did for food.
In fact, Remy the rat’s vision of Paris is similarly matched by Joe’s growing doughy-eyed vision of New York city. The cuddly soul-world is made physical in a way that only Disney’s plush toys and merchandising will be able to demonstrate; yet the real beauty of the film lies in its urban streets and imaginings of everyday life. Trips to the family tailors and local barbers each capture a sense of community and heart that I found missing from the director’s previous journey into the mind. A narrative contrivance forces Joe to see his life from a new perspective, and from this fresh view of the world we are able to walk through the busy city as if we too find ourselves in someone else’s shoes.
This is Pixar’s animation at the top of its game. The way in which the company blends the familiar with the innovative in Soul allows the film to explore its big themes in personal ways. For every talking animal – an expected addition that even the least knowledgeable of Pixar’s back catalogue will see coming from a mile off – there is an original melding of 2D and 3D animation to catch you off-guard.
Though its final message may not be the most surprising revelation, Soul nonetheless manages to play all the right chords. It is a well-imagined piece of finger-clicking fun which balances its sweetness with the cold reality of its central premise. This may not be as innovative as what Pixar has achieved in the past, but that is beside the point. Soul manages to provide just enough flare to keep its familiarity interesting.