Cinema, like any art form, has boundless capacity to surprise. Disney-Pixar has struggled a little recently (see Onward, for example). But the studio reclaims its title as the benchmark in animation with the incredible Soul.
I suspect the success of Soul has a lot to do with the return of Pete Docter to the director’s chair. Docter, you may recall, directed two of Pixar’s very best films in Up (2009) and Inside Out (2015). Soul is his first feature since Inside Out. Here, he swings for the fences with a deeply thoughtful concept, but somehow also manages to make it hugely entertaining. Sure, it hits some of the same beats as Docter’s earlier Pixar films. And I get that some don’t respond to them (particularly the more manipulative aspects). But for others, they’re like catnip. If you’re in the latter category, you’ll love this.
Our protagonist is Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) a middle-school band teacher in New York City. Joe dutifully tries to bring out musical talent in a bunch of largely uninterested students (one notable exception aside). But he still dreams of playing jazz professionally. The same day as the school offers him a permanent position, a call from former student Curley (Questlove) could transform his life. Curley is playing drums in a quartet with renowned saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Their pianist can’t make that evening’s gig, and Curley offers Joe the chance to try out for the spot. Despite Dorothea’s intimidating presence, Joe drops into “the zone” and snares the gig. But on the way home, a misplaced footstep will change everything.
Seems Joe has fallen down a manhole and critically injured. He finds himself – or more precisely, his soul – on a conveyor belt to the Great Beyond. Realising that going into the Great Beyond means it’s curtains, Joe scrambles and manages to end up in the Great Before. This is like a training ground for new souls looking to find a place on Earth – and they can’t go till they get an “Earth pass”; which in turn means finding their “spark”. Joe manages to convince the Jerrys, the gatekeepers of the Great Before, that he’s actually a mentor – an old soul meant to help out the new souls.
But a mix-up sees the Jerrys believing Joe was a renowned child psychologist on Earth. As a result, he’s assigned the troublesome 22 (Tina Fey). Seems 22 doesn’t have any interest in getting to Earth, while Joe has every interest in doing just that. A twist of fate sees the pair shot back to NYC. Meanwhile, the Great Beyond’s accountant Terry (Rachel House) has discovered an anomaly in the “count” of souls, and he’s soon on the trail of the misfits.
Soul is one of those movies that benefits from repeated viewings. Docter and co-director Kemp Powers hide Easter eggs* all over both the “real” and imagined worlds of the film. The pair also collaborated on the screenplay with Mike Jones. The result is a film that feels both sweeping in its scope and yet oddly personal. The convoluted plot could have gone off the rails, but Docter and his team manage to keep things clear enough most of the time. And they don’t neglect the trademark Pixar humour, injecting plenty of sight, sound and “physical” jokes into the film.
As you’d expect with a Pixar film, the visuals are stunning. But here they outdo their own lofty standards with a magnificent rendering of New York. The golden-hued city stands in contrast to the weird blues and purples of the Great Before. But it also grounds the film in reality, in contrast to say Inside Out. At times, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re watching footage of the real city. Even the way they deal with something as “simple” as light falling on a sidewalk is incredible. It’s actually a huge shame this film was released straight to streaming, because seeing it in a cinema would be something else.
Music unsurprisingly plays a huge part in the film. The story centres around jazz, and rising jazz star Jon Baptiste provides tracks which inform the warm sounds of New York. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (who recently dabbled in jazz for their score on Mank) provide the non-jazz electronic sounds of the Great Before.
Soul is one of those rare movies that has something for pretty much everyone. Younger kids may struggle with the multi-layered plot, but only the most hard-hearted cynic could come away from this completely unmoved.
*Including a tribute to the storied Half Note jazz club that closed in the 1970s
Soul is now playing on Disney +
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television