Pixar the animation studio has been dancing around this illusion for some time – the false belief, coined by psychologist Tal Ben-Sharar, that once we achieve a particular goal we’ll be happy – and it’s never been more vivid that in their latest, the warm and ambitious Soul.
Our believer is Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle-school music teacher dreaming of becoming a professional jazz pianist. He just knows he’ll be happier once he makes it, and he won’t let anything stand in his way. And so, after finally securing the gig of a lifetime playing with jazz legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), success seems set. That is, until death reveals it has other plans for Joe.
Pixar films so often show a preoccupation with death – you’ll need two hands to count the titles coloured by the death of a parent or a loved one, or those that dig deep into one philosophical concept or another. Soul is the most elaborate example to date, sending Joe into “The Great Beyond” after falling down a manhole, forcing him to soon look at his life in the rearview mirror. Except, as we know, he’s got a dream: so he refuses what lies beyond and finds himself in “The Great Before,” a place where souls learn how to live before being sent to Earth to become human beings. Here, he meets a particularly stubborn, cynical soul named 22 (Tina Fey) who he must mentor in order to find a way back to life.
If it sounds a little haywire, Pete Docter and co-writer/director Kemp Powers keep things in check elegantly. Glowing visuals à la Inside Out and new-age melodies by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross at their sharpest give us the metaphysical world, while Jon Batiste scores the New York-set scenes with a number of original jazz pieces, bringing a sense of authenticity and calm to autumn in the Big Apple. Golden leaves pepper the streets and the sun is shining, as this movie stakes its claim as the animation studio’s most visually accomplished yet.
Emotionally, Soul hopscotches back and forth between its philosophical concepts and real-life groundings, occasionally losing the viewer in the process. It’s hard to imagine how children will stay focused, too, with the film’s wit and agility most effective when it's questioning enormous doubts. How do you figure out what you’re born to do? When is it too late? What if your “purpose” doesn’t actually make you happy?
The scenes in which Soul stares these questions square in the eyes make for the film’s most moving – and frankly, terrifying – moments, but others involving a therapy cat, Rachel House voicing a neurotic accountant, Graham Norton and Richard Ayoade (here, for some reason), all confuse the film’s overall impact, despite the occasional laugh.
Jamie Foxx as Joe offers a compelling, vulnerable voice performance, but Tina Fey’s casting as 22 does feel a little underwhelming (22 says her voice can be changed on cue, explaining the voice of a middle-aged white lady “annoys people,” and so she sticks with it). Elsewhere Hamilton standout Daveed Diggs has a minuscule role as a neighbourhood nemesis of Joe’s – a great waste, considering Diggs’ obvious talent.
There’s plenty of heart in Soul, but not always in the right place. The moments of vulnerable feeling, of anxiety and fear and bravery, are by far the best – at once when 22 feels the autumn breeze on her skin as when Joe fully loses himself in his music. It’s often a case of wishing you were back on Earth in the jazz club instead of hearing jokes about self-absorbed unborn souls in the afterlife, or of wishing Joe would actually call the love of his life, or spend more time with his family, or realise what his love for music actually means, instead of always just trying to play it so badly.
The message is clear, and important: lofty musings about finding your purpose, your end-all goals and all-or-nothing dreams are worthless if you can’t appreciate the small moments of the voyage that gets you there. There are plenty of those in Soul: in Joe’s megawatt smile, in each perfect little note of the endless score, in the way the sunlight changes the colour of New York’s trees. But perhaps Pixar could do with learning the lesson it’s trying to teach us: it’s okay to try and fail, to move beyond enormous philosophies and neat endings and take things a little slower next time.
Soul is now streaming exclusively on Disney+