We’re so used to the phrase Pixar Movie that it’s often easy to forget that they are in fact directed by actual human beings, not rendering algorithms. Soul is co-directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers, says the imdb, but the end credits of the film itself tell us that it’s “Directed by Pete Docter” and “Co-directed by Kemp Powers”, not “Co-directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers”.
Kemp was heavily involved in the film, particularly at the conceptual and writing stages, but even so it still feels like a Docter film. His last one was Inside Out, the story of a little girl’s personality in crisis. And before that Up and Monsters, Inc., all underdog stories with a psychological aspect. Soul is something similar, the journey by two entities struggling towards fulfilment – Joe, a pianist who dies just before getting the break that will free him from teaching and enable him to live the life of a musician, and 22, the yet-to-be-born soul he meets in the Great Before, where Joe’s soul somehow got stranded while on its way to the Great Beyond. Together these two individuals go on a journey, him to get his life (and gig) back, and her to find the missing “spark” that will make her eligible for life on earth. Meanwhile, chasing after Joe, jobsworth Terry from accounts in the Great Beyond has noticed that a soul is missing and sets out to track it down.
The plot is a light lift from Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death – if you’re going to steal, steal from the greats – and there are moments, such as the mechanical “stairway to heaven”, that will be familiar if you know the film. David Niven, Deborah Kerr, the Earth in Technicolor, Heaven in black and white. That one.
Soul’s plot is a lot wilder and more convoluted than I’ve painted it, but it’s easy to follow, even when it swerves from buddy/road movie into body-swap territory and pianist Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is now back on Earth but in the body of a cat, while unborn soul 22 (voiced by Tina Fey) is inhabiting the pianist’s body.
Fey gets the best of the jokes and Foxx is solid as Joe, the likeable everyman. In another lift, this time from the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, Graham Norton voices the captain of a phantasmagorical three-masted ship that cannons about in the afterlife, a vocally distinctive presence in a voice cast notably full of African American actors – as well as Foxx there’s Angela Bassett, Questlove, Phylicia Rashad.
For a while Pixar got hung up on rendering stuff accurately – feathers, and hair, drops of water and the like – but they seem to have got that entirely out of their system now. Soul is set in two distinct visual realms: here on Earth, which looks like the sort of Pixar we’re familiar with, and off in the afterlife of the Great Beyond and the Great Before, where the laws of physics are not obeyed quite so strictly, where two dimensions and three seem to slide into each other and where the colour palette can flip in a moment from monochrome to soft pastels to acid.
It’s dealing with death, but Soul does it in a way that’s neither mawkish nor glib. The big message is simple: isn’t it great to be alive. Disney also deals in this sort of affirmative messaging but tend to sloganeering; Pixar just do it better, by showing us the marvels of the physical world – distilled at one point into Joe’s musings on a sycamore seed.
Smart, empathic, funny, brilliantly animated and conceptually fantastic, Soul really is the full package.
© Steve Morrissey 2021