In the last couple of years, Pixar’s finest minds have staked their claim as Hollywood’s premier explorers of the metaphysical. From diving into the inner workings of the mind with Inside Out to wandering the land of the dead in Coco, their recent non-sequel work has turned abstract concepts into fun, funny, and deeply emotional adventures, and Soul is perhaps the studio’s most ambitious effort in this field yet. Inside Out director Pete Docter, with One Night In Miami writer Kemp Powers in the co-director seat, guides us on a tour across the various realms of the soul – from before life to after it – to trippy effect, with the end product not quite being top-tier Pixar, but landing close to it.
Before we’re introduced to the astral plane, though, we’re treated to Pixar’s pixel-perfect recreation of New York, as music teacher Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) races through the city to get ready for a make-or-break gig, playing piano in the quartet of jazz superstar Dorothea (Angela Bassett). It’s the best city Pixar has ever created, matched by probably their most expressive and detailed human characters, a visual masterclass even before Joe falls down a manhole cover and finds himself at the entrance to the afterlife, his human form replaced by a blobby blue wisp.
The early afterlife sequences make no secret of the debt Soul owes to A Matter of Life and Death. From the stairway to heaven to the envisioning of higher beings as supernatural bureaucrats, the influence of Powell and Pressburger’s existential masterpiece is clear – right down to the vision of heaven having giant viewing holes in its floor. Within this – not to mention some stylistic tricks lifted directly from my Neighbour Totoro – however, Soul is still packed with originality and imagination.
In an attempt to escape the finality of death, Joe’s soul ends up in the ‘Land Before’ instead of the ‘Land Beyond’, the place where new souls are moulded before being sent to earth, and there is some gorgeous, abstract design at play in this realms, especially when it comes to the soul-shapers. They’re somewhere between a Picasso painting and a bolt of lightning, constantly shifting into different shapes, with a 2D flatness that helps them stand outside and above the 3D world they inhabit.
In this area, Joe takes on the job of a mentor – an old soul that teaches the new ones about earth – and is partnered up with Soul 22 (Tina Fey), the only soul that refuses to leave the Land Before, until a mishap lands both Joe and 22 back on earth, 22 inhabiting Joe’s previously comatose body, and Joe’s soul stuck inside a chubby therapy cat. Soul jumps back and forth between New York and the astral plane, keeping its beautiful visuals fresh, whether it’s in a lively and friendly barbershop or across the vast plains of the ominous land of Lost Souls.
Just as they tackled depression and disappointing family legacies in Inside Out and Coco, Soul again shows Pixar’s commitment to respecting their young target audience, never pulling punches in its depiction of death, instead facing it head on with both melancholy and humour. It’s not quite Pixar’s funniest film, nor quite their saddest (the emotional hammer blow you generally expect is softer here than in their very best work), but it is warm and incredibly entertaining from start to finish – even if the plot might get a bit too muddled and busy for kids come the finale.
A brilliant roster of voice actors are key to Soul working as well as it does. Foxx is a powerhouse lead – you could see him being an Oscar contender if Joe were a live-action character – while Fey tones down a lot of her mannerisms to grant 22 both a livewire comic appeal and a deeper, quieter sadness. Elsewhere, Phylicia Rashad and Questlove are funny and moving as Joe’s mum and grateful ex-student, respectively, and it’s an absolute delight to hear Richard Ayoade and Graham Norton as denizens of the Land Before, both of whom get pretty central roles and are consistently hilarious.
Ultimately, Soul is more of a stylistic showcase than an emotional one, so it can’t quite measure up to the perfectly-balanced pantheon of Inside Out, Wall-E, Toy Story 3 etc, but what style it has. Environments both photoreal and bizarre are feasts for the eyes, backed by fantastic character design and a great score from David Fincher regulars Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Soul is one of Pixar’s greatest gambles, full of soaring ambitions and high-minded ideas, and when it pays off it’s a gorgeous, witty treat.