Why are we who we are? Where does the unquantifiable ‘it’ factor originate? This is a question philosophers, religion, and academics have wrestled with since we have been able to think beyond ‘me hungry, me need food’. Children’s animation studio Pixar have been broadly going for movies that ponder big questions and hit big feels of late (see Inside Out, Coco, and Onward) but to tackle the nature of existence, as told through the power of jazz music, is certainly aiming big, even for them.
Joe Gardner is a jazz pianist who has never been able to catch a break. Instead, he fills his time teaching a high school class of mostly disinterested kids. After securing a hugely important audition, Joe (Jamie Foxx from Project Power) falls down an open street maintenance hole and is astonished to find his soul in ‘The Great Beyond’. This is an ethereal conveyor belt heading towards the proverbial (and, in this case, literal) giant light. With life yet unlived he escapes to ‘The Great Before’ where new souls are imbued with the personality elements that will define their lives on Earth, minus an all important ‘spark’ which must be discovered individually. Yet when he gets back to Earth along with unruly ‘Soul 22’ (who has resisted all attempts to be born), they must work together before they get tracked down and placed back where they belong.
In typical Pixar fashion, this high concept is broken down into manageable chunks so that in the movie it all makes sense. Such a setup is inherently macabre for an ostensibly kids film but with the wonderful Coco already using death and the afterlife as a setting if anyone can do it, Pixar can. The core of Soul, which anchors you through any potential confusion, is the relationship between Joe and 22 (Tina Fey). An astrological mix up means that their manifestation on Earth doesn’t go as Joe expects, notwithstanding that 22 didn’t want to manifest at all. The ‘push you pull me’ dynamic of competing interests makes both conflict and delight, as 22’s presence causes Joe to slowly re-evaluate how he lived his life.
Whereas Inside Out clearly laid out its rules and basically had the ‘normal’ world and the ‘inside people’s head’ world, Soul suffers a little from scatter gunning. Much like the sumptuous jazz sprinkled over it, Soul doesn’t stick to one setting or plotline for any length of time which makes watching it a disjointed effort. Joe, as Pixar’s first African American protagonist, gives license to dig into different cultural norms than all of their preceding catalogue. The movie finds reasons to spend time at a barbershop, jazz club, and with Joe’s dominating mother that all smack of a tick sheet rather than natural narrative flow. Regardless, it is refreshing to have a joyous journey through a world that inexplicably took Pixar 23 films to get around to.
Joe’s singular focus to get to his audition on time combined with the high concept of death, souls, and living for purpose mean that Soul likely edges itself out of the young children age bracket. Whereas Coco spoke to a child’s perception of family and passing on, Soul is a more adult rumination. The moments that hit hardest are those that suggest a life squandered when death could hit at any time, and Joe’s desperation to fulfil his dream takes him down all the avenues he had pushed to the side in order to focus on it. Many a grown-up will squirm in sympathy as Joe is taken down a tour of his lacklustre major memories and the total hardly adds up to much.
Even if the narrative is a bit haphazard, Pixar’s high standard in gorgeous (frequently abstract) animation still shines out. As does the score that is part jazz, part warm ambiance (courtesy of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross). The scenes on Earth are teeming with life. Joe may be blind to them, but 22’s revelatory ecstasy at smelling, hearing, and experiencing, things for the first time is infectious. Through her, you can immerse yourself in the action by proxy which is a fantastic achievement. Theoretical astrophysical planes are sublime; asymmetrically angular shapes glow with comforting assurance. The afterlife (or beforelife) never looked so tangible.
Soul doesn’t quite hit the high of Pixar’s previous deep thought hits. It has a skidding plot that struggles to settle on the right beats to really pull at the heartstrings. The ending, in particular, screams ‘the test audiences demanded we go this way’. What it does do is find a fresh approach to focus on front and centre. It drapes layers of a life lived and a life unlived over one of the most realistic protagonists to date. It asks the big questions. And, most of all, through championing what gives us our individual ‘spark’ it gives you permission to grasp on to anything that is the source of your happiness and revel in it.
Words by Mike Record