Pixar know how the wrap their fingers around your heart-strings and yank on them till you buckle. ‘UP’ being the go-to example, but in more recent years the likes of ‘Coco’ and ‘Inside Out’ have also proven themselves among Pixar’s most emotionally affecting fables. So when they announced Soul, the story of an ageing Jazz musician finally getting his big break, I was all in. Pixar + Jazz music + a Black lead = something special. Right?
Well first off let me say that whatever you think this is going to be… you’re wrong. Whether that’s a good thing or bad is up to you. For me, I was ready for whatever they fancied throwing my way because, let’s face it, we all need some gentle warmth these days and if there’s one guarantee with Pixar, it’s that you’ll get that in spades. Story-wise, we dial in on the charmingly hapless Joe, voiced by Jamie Foxx, as he futilely attempts to conduct a high school band. In frustration he cuts off the band and takes to the piano to teach them a lesson in Jazz. As his fingers flow through the keys, he transcends into a state of effortless improvisation, the rooms dissolves and he is one with the music, his talent clearly beyond his station. But all that is about to change when he gets a chance to play with the Dorothea Williams Quartet. The gig of a lifetime. Remember though this is Pixar and nothing is ever that simple. Cue – Joe’s sudden death. The majority of what follows takes place in a place called The Great Before, where human souls find their purpose in life before travelling to Earth to inhabit a body. Joe finds himself trapped here after out-right refusing to enter The Great Beyond just as his life was finally making sense. So, that’s the set-up and at this point I must confess I was not convinced. Here’s why.
The Great Before is populated by thousands of souls in the form of bluish, floating balls with faces. Among them stride the counsellors – giant, angular creatures charged with ushering the souls through their journey. It’s a daring move by Pixar to venture into such an abstract arena to tell the lion’s share of the story but, compared to the staggering detail of the real-world in which we revelled only moments before, it feels like a backwards step. We’ve watched Pixar dominate the front-line of animation for decades now, so this unexpected and, in my mind, unnecessary simplification doesn’t quite track for me. With no conceptual boundaries to adhere to, it feels like a missed opportunity for some truly out-there, audacious ideas. However, the ‘real-world’ is undeniably, far more beautiful. The fidelity is pin-sharp, down to every floating leaf, car exhaust or facial micro-expression. The lighting exquisite, rendering every environment with a realism we haven’t seen before. The Half Note bar exemplifies this perfectly, the smokey, dimly lit venue drawing you in, you can almost smell the whisky. So I found myself longing to be back to reality so my eyes could feast on the technicolour banquette laid out before me.
The Great Before deals with some interesting themes though. The many thousands of wide-eyed, fresh-faced souls travel around this kindergarten like world in search of their defining characteristics that they will take with them when they journey to Earth and latch onto a box-fresh tiny human (I think they’re called babies, I’m not sure). To find these aptitudes and attributes the souls are guided through The Great Before trying and testing countless activities, to hone into what makes them tick. Once all the spaces are filled, they begin life. Even for Pixar, dealing with pre-determinism in this way is quite an audacious move and I must say I wasn’t convinced. Being of the belief that we are the captain’s of our own fate, the notion of being born with an affiliation to certain things didn’t connect with me. However, the back end of the story explores this idea as well and doesn’t necessarily cement itself in one particular stance. During this section Joe meets 22 voiced by Tina Fey, a soul as yet unfulfilled by the The Great Before and therefore unable to travel to Earth to begin here life as a human. Joe, not out of selflessness decides to help her in the hopes he can steal her ticket and return to his life. Joe and 22 are our two leads for the rest of the film, their relationship fraught and similar to that of battling siblings. There are some controversial choices at the halfway point that somewhat subvert Pixar’s boast of their first Black led film and hearing some Black critics reflect on this, it seems like a pretty significant blunder.
Ruling – There is a still a lot to love about Soul and it’s bursting with heart and sincerity but for whatever reason, the story didn’t connect with me and I was left a bit cold. It’s worth a watch just for the real-world animation though and I dare your lip not to wobble at a scene toward the end with Joe and his mother. On the whole, it’s a solid entry from Pixar but just lacks the magic that it’s predecessors had by the shed load.