As the mind behind Monsters Inc., Up and Inside Out Pete Docter has built a track record for directing some of Pixar’s best and most heartfelt works. However, he is also as susceptible any of the Pixar team when it comes crafted unbalanced stories, either in tone or structure. Think of how Brave stumbled from being a female empowerment narrative to Adventures in Bearsitting. Or how Docter’s own Up might as well be an Oscar-winning short film in front of a bonkers adventure comedy. Soul then, may well be the exemplar; Docter’s most ambitious and earnest work to date, so ambitious in fact that it retains the lack of balance and reworks it into the very DNA of the film.
Soul is the story of Joe (Jamie Foxx), a middle-aged Jazz musician (and Pixar’s first African-American lead) torn between a steady job as a music teacher and performing as a full-time pianist. His chance to play his dream gig is seemingly denied to him when he stumbles down a manhole and is put into a coma. Awakening as a disembodied spirit bound for the ‘great beyond’ he panics and winds up in a prep station for new souls where they are imbued with the qualities that will make them unique. To avoid the afterlife he is paired with the rambunctious Number 22 (Tina Fey) who has dispatched countless mentors, including Mother Teresa, Aristotle and George Orwell, who have all failed to give her the essential ‘spark’ that every soul needs. However, when Joe’s attempt to return to his body ends up with 22 stuck inside. There she begins to experience everything that makes life worth living, with Joe forced to tag along now embodying a nearby cat.
See where that imbalance I mentioned comes into play? The afterlife with Joe attempting to help 22 find her spark and begin a life of her own could work perfectly well as a film on its own. The body swap comedy could work as a film of its own. Even Joe’s mid-life crisis, free of all supernatural elements could work as a decidedly less family-friendly film of its own. Smacking all of them together robs the film of any sense of thematic or tonal cohesion and constantly breaks the flow. And yet as frustrating as it is you can’t entirely hold it against the film.
Part of the reason is how well the two sections are divided. With the earthbound sections animated with Pixar’s typical richness. Insanely well-detailed environment that reek of living, breathing worlds, in this case New York City in all its noisy, grimy glory. Not to mention human models that move and emote powerfully, yet still possess the exaggerated idiosyncrasies that makes them undeniably cartoons. Beyond the physical though Docter introduces a cosmic landscape of seemingly infinite depth. With the souls rendered as sinuous wisps of fog in such a way that establishes their ethereal nature but with enough characteristics to make each soul unique. Lost souls animated grain by grain, as Ghibli-esque shadow creatures of black sand. And the godlike beings who run everything drawn as infinitely expressive wire models against minimalist backgrounds. To say nothing of the two different scores; a Jazzy riff by Jon Batise on Earth and a more abstract theme by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for the beyond.
The juxtaposition of the two art styles helps to distinguish the places in which the narrative shifts from one mode to the next. This doesn’t make the structure any less messy, but it provides a beautiful roadmap with which to navigate the mess. Which brings us to the other reason the film still works which is…well, it’s Pixar. These people are pros when it comes to crafting unique and heartfelt stories and the voice performances are capable of amusing inspiring in equal measure. With relatable and funny character out of musicians and metaphysical creatures alike. The story forces both Joe and 22 to confront the emotional baggage holding them back and Foxx and Fey bring real emotionality to each moment. Every note of frustration, sorrow, insecurity and hope is audible in their voices.
Soul is far from perfect and not just because of the messy plotting. The nature of Number 22’s emotional insecurity seems to change depending on what the plot requires, which undermines our investment in the climax somewhat. In general some of the comedy leans towards the clumsy and juvenile and the lines between life and death seem to fall apart at the end, even outside of interventions from cosmic beings. However, it is hard to think of another film this year so rich in character or so powerful in its emotional weight. Pixar had the ambition to make something as life-affirming and inspiring as A Matter of Life and Death for children and it is no small praise to say they succeeded.