Pete Docter’s track record with Pixar is arguably the strongest amongst those filmmakers who have returned to the celebrated animation studio multiple times. With his run of Monsters Inc, Up and Inside Out, Docter’s work has come to stand as the studio working at the peak of their powers in both the creative and emotional stakes. With his latest, Soul, Docter is very much expanding on the territories he has explored before (particularly in the case of Inside Out), but in a way that is a natural progression of where his filmography has been heading. The result is Pixar’s most mature film to date, and one that contains some of the most ambitious storytelling and animation that the studio has ever produced.
The film follows Middle School music teacher Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), who has long dreamed of becoming a professional Jazz Pianist, often feeling as though he has always just missed his shot. When he is offered another chance to perform and show his worth, an accident throws his soul into the world of the afterlife. Refusing to accept that this is truly the end of his life, Joe teams up with a cynical soul in training, 22 (Tina Fey), on a quest to reunite his soul with his body before he once again misses out on another shot.
There are very much two layers of environment to the world that Soul . On one level there is a stunningly animated Autumnal New York City. Revelling in the details of street corners, and the seemingly mundane operations of day to day life, this New York City is vibrant, bustling and jaw-droppingly real. You often have to double take when gazing at the environments, as they are often boggling to behold in their level of detail. The moments of musical performance, be it in the classroom or a basement jazz bar, vibrate with a level of authenticity that is unlike anything Pixar has done before. Pair that with the beautifully realised expression of being ‘in the zone’, as well as Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross’ score with Jon Batiste’s jazz compositions, you have a film that is musically alive throughout.
The second level is that of visualising both ‘The Great Beyond’, Pixar’s version of the afterlife, and ‘The Great Before’, where souls are trained before being sent down to Earth. This is where the Inside Out element truly comes to play a part, as much of the look of the souls and stylings of The Great Before in particular are close in spirit to Docter’s previous work. But the visual invention within both the types of characters found within the Before and Beyond, as well as Joe’s initial journey through the layers of the afterlife, are bewildering and imaginative, filled with the kind of sense of wonder that has been a little lacking in other recent (and more sequel minded) Pixar efforts.
The first twenty or so minutes that establishes Joe’s life and then throws him into the afterlife conjure some of the finest images and sounds that the house that Woody and Buzz built have ever conjured. It looks to be on course to stand as one of the accomplished studio’s greatest films. Where it starts to fall off the mark is when it begins to establish the kind of narrative one is quite used to seeing in a Pixar movie, that of a buddy road movie. Come the turn of the second act, the film seems to suddenly panic that it hasn’t done enough to appeal as a kids movie, with a body swap comedy taking centre stage. It helps to build into the film’s ultimate theme of how taking a walk in somebody else’s shoes can allow you to appreciate the simpler things in life, but it makes what has been a more audacious experience from the studio suddenly start to feel more by the numbers than the initial opening promised.
The final act itself does come back around to some of the more complex ideas surrounding the core existential questions at the heart of its concept. It develops into a message about how everyone should take a moment to appreciate everything in life, and how one should not define themselves by their passions. It can be a little cloudy in delivering this message, as it often feels as though this is a message that is very easy for very successful filmmakers to extol from their privileged positions, while also undermining some of the power dreams can have for giving a sense of meaning in peoples lives. There’s certainly a great deal of importance in delivering a message that allows particularly younger viewers to be prepared for the fact that your dreams don’t always work out, but there’s an abruptness to the end that leaves the message feeling a little out of reach.
What flaws lie in Soul largely come down to one thing; it applies so many ideas, characters and concepts that it ultimately can start to feel as though elements are vying for attention. There’s also the niggling sense that some elements that do end up being focused on aren’t the most compelling. It never particularly sits right to criticise a film for being overly-ambitious, but that is certainly the case here in Soul. Details of Joe’s life that feel worthy of exploration, namely that of being a mentor, feel as though they’ve been tossed aside in favour of an uneven buddy comedy that plays too broad and ultimately ends up robbing the film of more of an emotional potency that its earlier, more inspired moments, effortlessly conjured.
The reason these flaws standout is because of how impressive many elements of this film are. It is easily Pixar’s most mature work, offering lessons that can occasionally feel uneasy and laced with a very affecting level of melancholy, all the while also being very funny from time to time. It runs a huge gauntlet of emotion, and if it is let down by flawed ambition, at least it is ambition nonetheless. There are stretches in Soul where Docter and his team are very much in the zone, crafting many magical and beguiling moments, only occasionally getting knocked out of it along the way.
Dir: Pete Docter
Scr: Pete Docter, Mike Jones, Kemp Powers
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Questlove, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, Angela Bassett
Prd: Dana Murray
DOP: Matt Aspbury, Ian Megibben
Music: Jon Batiste, Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross
Runtime: 100 minutes
Soul is available to stream on Disney+ now.