Soul

Joe playing jazz

 

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.

 

In the realm of the Great Before
22 and Joe in the realm of the Great Before

 

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

 

 

Cars

Lightning McQueen in Cars

 

 

Have the wheels come off at Pixar? Mawkishness now seems to have replaced energy and invention at the studio that… no hang on, this is the studio that once gave us Toy Story. Let’s not get carried away. But if Pixar have been known for anything it’s their ability to run sentiment and energy on a twin track, the result being a film with heart and drive. The plot of Cars suggests they’ve forgotten how to do this – we’re on the case of a self-centred hotshot racing car (voice: Owen Wilson) who loses his way and gets stuck in Radiator Springs, a small town where the good locals (all of whom are cars) teach him to love others and himself. Then, spiritually refreshed, he goes off and becomes a champ. Because that’s how champs are made, right?

I can’t believe that Pixar set out to make a film with something missing, but bizarrely that’s the theme of Cars too – our champ has lost his soul, he winds up in a town that’s lost its reason for existence (since it was bypassed by Route 66), where he finds a whole bunch of vintage vehicles (old tow truck, old VW Beetle, old Jeep and so on) who are all missing their youth.

Let’s not be too gloomy. The animation in Cars is quite amazing, the racing scenes show how far Pixar have come since they started making little films purely to demo software and there’s a glorious use of colour – reds in particular seem to bounce off the screen. Kids probably won’t care that it’s Paul Newman voicing veteran race car Doc Hudson, and they probably won’t be looking out for John Ratzenberger’s bits (he’s been in all the Pixars to date, I believe) or the tiny cameos by the voices of Michael Schumacher and Mario Andretti. But these little nuggets might keep their parents from checking their watch too often in a film that has the looks, the technique but seems to prefer preaching to storytelling.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

Cars – at Amazon

 

 

 

Meet the Robinsons

Meet Wilbur and Lewis from Meet the Robinsons

 

 

Disney remind us of their legacy as animation innovators with this busy busy busy story about a young inventor genius and orphan (big aah) called Lewis who is zipped into the future by his new pal Wilbur Robinson. There Wilbur hopes Lewis will help him defeat a snarling, moustachioed villain called Bowler Hat Guy (who’s not a thousand light years removed from Dick Dastardly) and Lewis hopes Wilbur will help him recover his latest whizzy gadget, the Memory Scanner, from Bowler Hat Guy’s felonious grasp. This will enable Lewis to probe his own mind, in a desperate attempt to remember who his mother was (even bigger aah). On the way Lewis meets Wilbur’s extended eccentric family, jazz-loving frogs, dogs who wear glasses and a talking dinosaur, most of which are cute, all of which teeter on the edge of sentimentality.

Though one of the first new films out of Disney after it bought Pixar (or did Pixar engineer a reverse takeover?), there is scant Pixar involvement in Meet the Robinsons, and it’s obvious. That’s not to say that the Pixar look isn’t heavily evident. But then there’s plenty of Studio Ghibli in here too. And The Jetsons, Robots, Futurama, Jimmy Neutron and more other sources than any self-respecting animation should be referencing. Meet the Robinsons brims with gorgeous 1930s modernist imagery, there’s a menagerie of off-the-wall characters and a raft of whistleable Danny Elfman songs. But there’s a distinct impression that in the breathless panic to keep adding ingredients something vital has been mislaid.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

Meet the Robinsons – at Amazon.com