The new film from Pixar sees it once again juggling some massive ideas and themes, and distilling them into an excellent family movie – here’s our review.
From the off, it’s clear it’s going to be a bit different. Several films over the past decade have had fun with the Disney opening fanfare (Frankenweenie being my personal favourite), but none have gone out of their way to make it sound so deflated as Soul does. You’d be forgiven you’d walked in half way through a music exam that’s not going very well at all.
Even before the film had started, Soul had wrongfooted me a little
Pixar’s latest then opens up on a classroom, where we meet Joe – voiced by Jamie Foxx – who’s teaching band to a group of school students. He’s making the best of what he has, his lesson briefly sparking into life courtesy of a 12-year old trombonist. But he’s also harbouring an ambition to be a jazz pianist – much to the annoyance of his mother – and a desire to make his living that way.
Just reading that paragraph back, the guts of the story straight away feel like they’ve been told many times in the movies, oftentimes well. The character of Joe is the first big difference though, a Black middle-aged man in New York, a life we get a strong snapshot of. Soul has much in store for him, soon taking a dramatic turn – going as spoiler light as possible – when he falls down a manhole just after seemingly landing what could be his big break.
It’s a very sudden swing to the side. The film then immediately seems to veer towards the territory of A Matter Of Life & Death, the 1946 Powell and Pressburger classic (and the movie has Frank Capra threads too) as Joe finds himself ultimately paired up with a troubled soul by the name of 22, voiced by Tina Fey. She’s lost, and struggling for purpose. And Soul sets up some big questions that need answering for these two characters in particular.
It makes for a hugely absorbing opening half hour, and as the film begins to explore life, priorities, passions, spark and – yep – soul, it barely lets go for the duration of its 100 minutes. For this is wonderfully intelligent, thoughtful cinema – and what’s more, it’s a proper family adventure it’s all wrapped into as well.
I can’t quite put my finger on its trick, but I do wonder if part of it is that it looks both familiar yet very, very different. Director Pete Docter – here co-directing with Kemp Powers (best known to date for his journalistic and playwriting work, and he shares screenwriting credits too) – has form for pushing visuals in unexpected places before, courtesy of one outstanding, two-dimensional sequence in his previous movie Inside Out. In this case, whilst we’re long past the days of computer animation alone being instantly striking, Soul nonetheless feels technically exhilarating, yet never showing off for the sake of it. It’s a stunning film to look at.
What’s more, as Joe and 22 take time in a word either beyond or before life, I found myself often unable to second guess where it was going to go. There are moments where 2D animation blends seamlessly into 3D, or we’re taken into areas where I can’t help but think there must at least have been a conversation about a more traditional animated look. Yet Soul holds its nerve, and it’s mesmerising to look at and be witness to its worlds.
The characters too feel just a little different. Just taking Joe for instance: he’s terrific company and I found myself rooting for him quickly, but crucially wanting to know a lot more about him. I love the level his stakes are set at (this is firmly not a film about saving the world), and the ecosystem of people around him who generally want the best for him. Soul makes quiet points about chasing dreams, about balance, about being a workaholic even. But it leaves things open enough that it doesn’t feel there’s a pre-determined set of things you’re supposed to take from it.
It doesn’t forget it’s a family film either, just because it’s dealing with some weighty stuff. A period of the film brings in a feline companion where it goes a little more slapstick, although perhaps just slows its momentum a little (although there’s an excellent segue for a haircut). It also I’d suggest has a section that – unusually when compared to the rest of the movie – is far more conventional and predictable. I can’t say that’s a big problem, just that it’s a notable difference compared to much of the rest of the film.
Still, this is really some piece of work, one underpinned by an extraordinary collection of music as well that it’d be remiss to overlook. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score is complemented by Jon Baptiste’s jazz work, and it’s as good a soundtrack to a Pixar movie as any to date.
The film, of course, is now set to bypass cinemas and debut on the Disney+ service this coming Christmas Day. It’s a wonderful family movie to look forward to, but amongst the things I wonder will be a little lost by consequence of this decision is the journey back from the cinema. That this is a film that positively invites discussion on the way back. Some family movies are content to be surrogate babysitters. This is not one of them.
It’s a film I can’t help but feel will further reward a second viewing as well. Not for Tenet-esque reasons of trying to figure it all out, but for the subtle detail, the richness of the world it puts on screen and – above all else – because it’s such a strong piece of work. Bluntly, it’s the kind of film that I imagine people – myself included – will quickly want to watch again.
I marvel at the size of the ideas that Docter and his team have wrestled into such an incredibly accessible piece of cinema here. That with Soul, for the third time in its last five films, Pixar is putting on screen a conversation that looks at mortality, that isn’t scared of issues others are nervous to edge towards. Even better, it’s doing it in a manner that’s witty, entertaining and incredibly thoughtful.
I do think, personally, that Coco remains the absolute pinnacle of Pixar’s achievements, but Soul is certainly hovering around that level too. Furthermore, I can’t help but think that were Pete Docter a director of live action features, he would be lauded as one of the finest filmmakers working in American cinema.
I can’t think of too many others who have such ambition in the stories and themes they want to cover, married to such a skill at putting that into a genuinely outstanding and welcome family feature. Soul is the work of a clear bunch of geniuses, and I’m very, very glad it exists.
Soul arrives on Disney+ on December 25th.
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