Director: Pete Docter, Kemp Powers
Writers: Pete Docter, Mike Jones, Kemp Powers
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Angela Bassett, Graham Norton, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade
Producers: Dana Murray
Music: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross
Cinematography: Matt Aspbury, Ian Megibben
Editor: Kevin Nolting
Running time: 100mins
What’s the story: After a near-death experience, jazz musician Joe (Foxx) escapes a trip to the Great Beyond, finding himself in the Great Before. Enlisting the reluctant assistance of soul-in-waiting 22 (Fey), Joe vows he will return to his body and play the biggest gig of his life.
What’s the verdict: Watching Soul, you get the impression co-director Pete Docter has viewed Powell & Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death, and talked jazz with La La Land director Damien Chazelle on more than one occasion.
Teaming up with One Night In Miami playwright Kemp Powers, Docter takes his love of hidden worlds for a musical excursion into the afterlife, the before-life, and a gorgeously animated New York City.
Unlike Docter’s Monster’s Inc., Up and Inside Out, Soul’s central character isn’t gripped by existential crisis. After years of trying, music teacher Joe (richly voiced by Foxx) has finally reached his destination point: playing piano professionally, for legendary jazz trumpeter Dorothea Williams (Bassett).
But the universe is a fickle beast, and a tumble down a manhole sees Joe on the escalator to the great hereafter. But, unlike his comatose body, Joe is not taking this lying down. One escape attempt later and he’s in the pastel shaded plains of the Great Before.
Here, cosmic managers (voiced by Alice Braga and Richard Ayoade) mistake Joe as a mentor for one of the souls prepping to inhabit a new body.
Joe finds himself assigned 22 (Fey, excellent as ever), a reluctant soul with disdain for living life on Earth. 22 has previously conquered famously inspirational mentors, seen melting down in flashback. So this guy with a particularly dull museum of memories is an average Joe indeed.
The two make a deal: if Joe can provide 22 with the “spark” of passion required for all souls before they descend earthward, he can have the soul “swipe card” required to get back to his body and she can live blissfully off grid.
Anyone familiar with Pixar’s output can guess this plan goes inventively and hilariously sideways. Cat lovers will be especially pleased…
Pixar is too often underappreciated for the visual sophistication it has brought to modern animation. What would once be the preserve of avant-garde ‘toons is confidently woven into mainstream kids’ fare (or older family fare here).
Remember Inside Out’s cubist tangent? Docter continues that here with the Great Beyond’s multi-dimensional supervisors and accountants taking a Picasso approach to personal appearance for Joe’s benefit.
A sea of lost souls, navigated by Graham Norton’s astral projecting hippie aboard a full-on Spanish galleon, is another example of visual imagination that Pixars make look easy… but is the product of probably the best brainstorming sessions in Tinseltown.
Then there is New York. Lit with an autumnal orange glow it is a joy to behold. A place of jazz bars and barbershops and inspirational lessons in apartment stairwells. Nocturnal aerial shots of the Big Apple are sublime in a way only slightly diminished on Disney+, where this has premiered.
That Soul is a universal story told with an African-American lead and supporting cast is also welcome in this troubled year.
Keeping Docter and Power’s film from 5-stars is the lack of an emotional crescendo. That heaven can be found in the smallest of moments is beautifully illustrated. Some scenes, set to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ gentle score, are reminiscent of Terrence Malick back when he wanted audiences to watch his movies.
But Soul misses, or chooses to omit, moments that would tie various threads together into a more satisfying whole. The final shot seems profound, but you may find yourself quickly thinking of others that would have landed better.
Personally, this reviewer found the climax to Onward, seen at the cinema in that long forgotten time of March 2020, as emotionally rewarding as the close of this movie.
Yet, it seems churlish to criticise too much. Hugs have been in short supply recently, so this hug-of-a-movie leaves a gentle glow. Much like that emanating off those blobs in the Great Before.