The plot: Joe (Jamie Foxx) is a middle-school band teacher whose dreams of playing jazz with the greats has never panned out until an old student calls him unexpectedly to say that he has an audition to play with his band that night. It’s the greatest day of Joe’s life… right up until an accident separates his soul from his body and sends him on his way to the afterlife in the Great Beyond. Unwilling to leave just as his dream is within reach, Joe escapes to the Great Before, the place where souls go before they are assigned a body. There he is mistakenly assigned as a mentor to 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who refuses to be born, taking them both on a journey of discovery about jazz, purpose and what it means to be alive.
The verdict: In a strange, difficult year for movies (and the people who make, distribute and watch them) I have been really looking forward to seeing ‘Soul’ since it was announced for several reasons. It’s co-directed by Pete Docter who directed ‘Inside Out’, my favourite Pixar film since ‘Toy Story 3’. It’s the first Pixar film to star an African-american protagonist, helmed by Pixar’s first African-American co-director Kemp Powers; it features the always welcome Tina Fey as the sassy sidekick and, crucially, it’s not a sequel or reimagining of a previous Disney property. In the decade that originality forgot, the brilliant minds behind ‘Inside Out’ are taking on the afterlife? Shut up and take my money!
With that weight of expectation behind it, does ‘Soul’ disappoint? No… well, not much. It is an absolutely beautiful film – I think probably Pixar’s best looking one to date. From the stunning golden hues of afternoon sunlight on a leaf to the gorgeously rendered Great Before where unbearably cute little blue soul blobs come to be given their personalities before they skydive down to Earth to be born, every inch of every frame is saturated with thought and care. While this film is crying out to be seen in all its glory on a big cinema screen, it is a gift to be given an original Pixar film for Christmas – even moreso for free if you already subscribe to Disney Plus – and there is so much to enjoy about ‘Soul’. Pete Docter is the king of the pre-credits sequence (remember how ‘Up’ broke your heart in the first ten minutes) and here Docter’s economy of storytelling presents us with Joe’s almost thankless day job (but for one promising student), his love of music, his mother’s lack of support for his gigging dreams and his one big chance to prove himself and live those dreams… before he accidentally ventures down a manhole.
The bulk of the film then deals with Joe’s attempts to get back to his body, now in a coma, before he misses his big gig and his being assigned as a mentor to soul 22, whose only goal is never being born. Tina Fey as 22 (she was the 22nd soul ever so she’s been putting off being born a while…) is spunky as the half of the spiritual odd couple who knows everything about this new world and nothing about ours. Her asides about her former famous failed mentors are snappy and amusing and she brings her usual energy and wit to the role, some lines for which she helped write.
Jamie Foxx’s Joe is likeable enough though we don’t get to spend much time with him as a human before he too is reduced to a little blue blob of a soul.
‘Soul’ should gain recognition for having a recognisable, believable community of black characters thanks to the diverse team behind the film. Watching Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) play saxophone backlit in her club at the start of the film it feels clear that this film was made by people who understand the characters. It’s a shame then that the story takes a turn halfway through which removes the black protagonist from himself even further even if it does lead to some amusing shenanigans and the requisite character growth his arc demands.
The film shifts away from the beautifully conceived realm of The Great Before far sooner than I expected which is a shame because it is a brilliantly visualised place peopled with helpful wire frame counsellors all amusingly named Jerry and harks back to the mindscape of ‘Inside Out’ with its different regions representing different concepts.
In ‘Soul’, these include the Hall of Everything where souls can try things to determine what their spark will be on earth and a desert where lost souls roam, encased in the dark sand of their obsessions. In this desert we meet one of the more random characters, Moonwind, a sign-twirling shaman from Earth played by Graham Norton who roams the desert in a hippy sailing ship healing lost souls. Norton plays his part well but his voice is so distractingly familiar it slightly took me out of it and his ability to be in the before-life whilst alive on Earth made the stakes feel lower than they should, even as that becomes an important plot point.
‘Soul’ has everything it needs to be another top tier Pixar classic. It’s absolutely gorgeous, has fun characters, a solid moral, great music and it shows us worlds that we’ve never seen before with wit and inventiveness. I wanted it to be the next ‘Inside Out’ and sadly it isn’t quite there but, whilst it doesn’t hit those heights for me emotionally – this is the first Pixar film I haven’t cried at in years – and there are some confusing aspects to the central conceit (Joe qualifies as a lost soul according to the film’s logic but isn’t one for some reason) it is still definitely going to be a highlight for families across the world on Christmas Day.
Rating : 4/5
Review By AJ O’Neill
Directed by Pete Docter & Kemp Powers
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, Graham Norton & Angela Bassett