Once again Pixar excel themselves with a life-affirming adventure in which a wannabe soul musician loses his soul and struggles to be born again.



Soul-searching: Physical incarnations of Joe Gardner and his cat (centre)


You couldn’t think of a better title, really. After all, this is the story of a musician who lives for soul music and then, literally, loses his soul. Pixar has never been afraid to push the boundaries of animation, either visually or thematically. The studio’s art has been to take complex, innovative ideas and to enrich them with adventurous narratives, vivid characters and comic detail, appealing both to youthful and adult sensibilities. Pixar’s first full-length cartoon was Toy Story (1995) and is a perfect example of the formula. It was the first fully computer-animated feature and pretty much answered that question about the tree falling in a forest. Here, a sub-theme is perfectly illustrated by the story of the little fish who, speaking to the older fish, says: “This is water, what I want is the ocean.”


There is much to chew on in Pete Docter and Kemp Powers’ instant classic. A music teacher called Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), is given the chance of his life to perform alongside the jazz legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) at the Half Note in New York. And, returning from his successful audition (having skipped past sidewalks littered with banana peels, treacherous nails and falling bricks) he plummets down a manhole and dies. Now, you won’t find many family films in which the protagonist meets his untimely end before the opening titles. And so we leap into A Matter of Life and Death – but with a reverse flip. As Joe’s soul charges down the conveyor belt headed for the Great Beyond – in the opposite direction – he plunges through a cosmic skin and ends up in the Great Before. Ergo, he finds himself in an embryonic dimension where he has yet to be born. There, he befriends ‘22’ (Tina Fey), a timid soul terrified of facing life, even though, as one Great Before counsellor explains, “forgetting the trauma of childbirth is one of the great gifts of the universe.” For some, the idea of life on Earth is a thrilling prospect, but ‘22’ just doesn’t get it – in spite of inspirational tutorials from Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa and Muhammed Ali. And so one of the most offbeat double acts in animated history is established: the soul who doesn’t want to die and the soul who doesn’t want to be born.


Pixar have tested such metaphysical waters with Monsters, Inc. (2001), Inside Out (2015), Coco (2017) and Onward (2020) and know just what the childhood imagination can take on board. With computer graphics, the sky is not the limit. Besides reminding us how important it is to live life to the full, Soul spotlights the joy of music, friendship and pizza, among other things.


As to be expected, the film is chock-full of zinging one-liners, throwaway gags and visual puns, while exploring bold visual styles. Mentors in the Great Before are designed as amorphous wisps of abstract art, while the New York backdrops are glorious in their multi-layered resonance (repeated viewings will reward the eagle-eyed). And the voice cast is equally inspired, running the gamut from the real-life drummer Questlove (aka Ahmir-Khalib Thompson) to Graham Norton and Richard Ayoade. The music, too, is ace. Originally due to have opened in cinemas on June 19, Soul finally premiered to the public on Christmas Day on Disney+, free to all subscribers (unlike Mulan). Its future life on DVD is assured.




Voices of  Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Ahmir-Khalib Thompson (aka Questlove), Angela Bassett, Cora Champommier, Margo Hall, Daveed Diggs, Rhodessa Jones, Wes Studi, Sakina Jaffrey, Fortune Feimster, Calum Grant, Laura Mooney, June Squibb, John Ratzenberger.


Dir Pete Docter and Kemp Powers, Pro Dana Murray, Screenplay Pete Docter, Mike Jones and Kemp Powers, Ph Matt Aspbury, Pro Des Steve Pilcher, Ed Kevin Nolting, Music Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Sound Ren Klyce.


Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation Studios-Walt Disney Studios.

97 mins. USA. 2020. Rel: 25 December 2020. Cert. PG.