On the surface, Soul is mainstay Pixar: The protagonist has a dream of making it big, there is a clownish anthropomorphised sidekick, and it all takes place in a cute re-imagining of the human subconscious. Yet, somehow, it feels like their freshest film in years.
Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is a professional jazz pianist stuck in a dead-end job. He is failing to inspire a middle-school band class while subsequently not fulfilling his passion of performing live on stage. However, on the same day he is offered the gig of a lifetime, Joe is caught up in something that will change (or possibly end) his life forever.
Our protagonist wakes up in the ‘Great Before’. Here, new-born souls find their passions and personalities before they float down to Earth to begin their lives. After many misunderstandings, Joe becomes responsible for 22 (Tina Fey). She is a rogue soul, determined to never make the trip to Earth, musing: “Why would you want to go down to Earth? That’s where souls go to die”. Through an elaborate ‘mix-up of souls’ á la Freaky Friday, Joe desperately attempts to persuade 22 that, yes, “All this living is worth dying for”.
The director Pete Docter could not be more perfect for this film. The resident Pixar luminary (Monsters, Inc., Up, Inside Out) leaves no stone unturned in capturing the ‘soul’ of the film. Along with his co-director Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami), they reinstate Pixar’s top status of the master animators and storytellers. It seems cliché for Pixar’s most recent film to be an improvement of the last in the technical department. But it is staggering. Director of photography Ian Megibben crafts some of the most naturalistic lighting seen in any animated film before. From streaks of green escaping the dark, dank subway, to the deep oranges falling through the trees at dusk; New York has never looked so much, well… like New York.
However, the minimalist design of the ‘Great Before’ was somewhat underwhelming. While the Picasso-esque models were intricately drawn, the backgrounds and set designs felt a little uninspired. Even the Souls themselves appeared to be nothing more than little marshmallows with limbs. Compared to Docter’s previous designs, such as the Scare Floor in Monsters, Inc. or the Mind Headquarters of Inside Out, their newest feature fractionally misses the mark.
One of the film’s greatest accomplishments is its music. In interviews, Docter claimed the score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network, Mank) was like “nothing we’ve heard before”. The blending of authentic jazz with electro-beats and synths enriches the film’s message of meshing the monotonous with the unexpected. Moments when Joe’s soul moves in and out of his body are intensified by string-like staccatos and surround-sound SFX. This is matched by sequences of fast-paced, intoxicating jazz not seen since La La Land. As the awards season begins to pick up speed, it is no surprise to see ample recognition being given to the film’s score.
The steadfast anchor of the film is its message. In a surprisingly mature turn for Pixar, Soul covers a multitude of contemporary themes. From re-evaluating your life’s purpose, to dealing with depression, the film zigzags its way through life’s inevitable turns and jolts. Pixar is no stranger to tackling mortality. Disney (Pixar’s distributor) is perpetually mocked for the number of absent parents they seem to include in their films. Yet Soul seems to introduce greater subtlety to the matter, particularly in its moving conclusion; one of Pixar’s most satiating and satisfying to date.
Contrary to what Joe has believed all his life, your passion, or your ‘spark’, is not your life’s purpose. Through the modern guise of social media, we are constantly reminded of all the successful people in the world. As 22 learns to relish the small things in life, we the audience (most likely stuck at home) appreciate this too. In a time where a lot of life’s wonderful moments are unavailable to us now, Soul drives home its timely message: your purpose in life must be to find the joy in every moment, no matter how small. And what a joy this film is.
Soul was released on Disney Plus on the 25th of December.