The release of Pixar’s Soul is a bittersweet experience for many movie fans. Anything that comes from the production line of the animation powerhouse feels like an event, and event movies should arrive in a cinema, not just another block of content alongside murder documentaries and Bake Off boxsets.
Nonetheless, Pixar’s 23rd feature arrives on streaming behemoth Disney+ on Christmas Day, and if you’re after something more considered than the Queen’s Speech, this will be the film for you. Jamie Foxx voices Joe, a Manhattan music teacher who gets a chance at his dream when he is offered a spot performing with a legendary musician (Angela Bassett) at the hallowed Blue Note Club.
On the way from his audition, however, tragedy strikes and his awakes in The Great Beyond. Refusing to accept his fate, he runs away and finds The Great Before, where souls are prepared for life. He meets 22 (Tina Fey) a soul who refuses to go to Earth having seen too much of the world from afar. Joe tries to convince her that life is worth living in the hopes that he can return to his body before it dies.
Directed by Pete Docter, the filmmaker behind Monsters Inc, Up, and Inside Out, Soul has been marketed as a family film, with the Christmas Day release on Disney+ implying we are all intended to sit around the TV and watch together. Strangely, Soul doesn’t really feel like a family film, in fact it’s arguably one of the most adult movies they have ever made.
The Great Before is a place filled with constantly shifting counsellors made up of squiggles, with the cheery tones of Alice Braga and Richard Ayoade, while Rachel House is brilliant as Terry, a comedic villain obsessed with getting Joe back in order to balance The Great Beyond’s ledger. It’s a peculiar and psychedelic take on the afterlife, but over the course of the film it becomes clear that this isn’t about death at all.
On paper Soul has many similarities to 2017’s Coco, but this story doesn’t focus on legacy in the same way. Eventually Joe and 22 find their way to Earth and have a series of misadventures inhabiting his body and that of a cat, with Joe spending more time agonising over his purpose rather than his will to live. The idea of destiny, what we are meant to do, is dissected in a surprisingly complex way, with Pixar arguing as only it can that life is about the journey, rather than the destination.
If Inside Out dealt with mental health, and Up with grief, is Soul Pixar’s midlife crisis movie? It’s hard to imagine younger viewers relating with Joe’s regrets about the direction of his life, and 22’s journey is reliant on his perspective. This seems like a story for adults rather than kids, but that isn’t a bad thing when the journey is this compelling.
“Is living really worth dying for?” is the question that runs through the plot, and the creatives at Pixar answer yes in a gentle, beautiful way. The idea of a ‘spark’, the thing that drives our passion, is illustrated with the idea that you don’t have to be a prodigy to find the thing that makes you whole. A scene in a barber shop, both well-written and sensitively acted, demonstrates the beauty of the everyday. We see Joe become so consumed with the idea of greatness, that he misses the great things around him.
Also well illustrated is how self-doubt can consume us, shown through characters morphing into large, featureless lost souls as the negative voices overawe them. It’s heavy subject matter handled gently, a quality this studio has become famous for.
Foxx is perfect for the part of Joe. A versatile actor who has played everyone from Ray Charles to Spider-man’s Electro, he’s capable of making you laugh or cry with just a change of inflection. He and Tina Fey make a great team, as they spend the majority of the time inhabiting the same space (and body). The 30 Rock star is abrasive, but always revealing that vulnerability beneath. Some notable supporting turns include Angela Bassett, who gives a third act speech that breaks your heart; and chat show host Graham Norton surprises you as the chipper spiritual guide who helps Joe move between this realm and the next.
Soul may require a few more viewings to digest the existential message. The film teeters on that fine line between genius and curiosity, going in directions that are unexpected even for a studio like Pixar. Despite our indecision, the film is confirmation that Pixar are still a company that do things their way, and that can only be a good thing.
Soul is available on Disney+ from Christmas Day