sat 25/05/2024

Soul review - Pixar's latest film misses the cinema | reviews, news & interviews

Soul review - Pixar's latest film misses the cinema

Soul review - Pixar's latest film misses the cinema

Heavenly jazz but not so jazzed-up about heaven

Making beautiful music together: Angela Bassett and Jamie Foxx

Pixar's recent work raises the question, how much overt spiritual guidance do you want in your animation? In their latest film, Soul, middle-school music teacher Joe (Jamie Foxx) aspires to play New York’s famed jazz clubs but is living hand to mouth.

On the same day he’s offered a full time teaching post, he also scores a dream gig playing at the Half Note with a top band. It’s no wonder that a random street accident sees him unwilling to ascend the escalator to Heaven (someone at Pixar has been watching A Matter of Life and Death).

Instead Joe jumps into the limbo-land of The Great Before, where unborn souls develop their personalities under the guidance of "soul counsellors" before being sent down to earth. Joe is paired up with Number 22, a bolshy character voiced by Tina Fey, who doesn’t want to be born. Joe's job is to mentor her in the joys of being alive, a task that’s stumped Mother Teresa, Carl Jung and Gandhi. After a fair amount of noodling in this neon-blue spirit world (below right, Tina Fey as 22), the two end up being sent to earth and Soul turns into a body swap comedy. 

Disney’s decision to drop plans for Soul to open in cinemas this past summer and instead launch the movie on its own channel on Christmas Day was a smart one. One suspects that this wordy, often over-contemplative narrative wouldn't have played that well to Pixar’s heartland audience of children. This is no Toy Story romp or Frozen musical; it’s far more in the vein of 2015’s Inside Out. Its creators have clearly been swallowing chunks of therapy speak, and whether you love Soul or not depends on how much you want to swallow it too.

While the New York scenes are wonderful, evoking the city in all its autumn splendour with wonderfully detailed street life, the inspirational homilies in The Great Before with soul counsellors like Moonwind (Graham Norton) and Jerry (Richard Ayoade) go on way too long. There are some heart-warming sections featuring Joe’s relationship with his mom (Phylicia Rashad) and a lively scene in a barber shop with Daveed Diggs, but it’s the musical passages that really work best. Angela Bassett voices Dorothea Williams, a formidable sax player and band leader, while Questlove voices Curly, a drummer in Joe’s band. For anyone jonesing for a night in a jazz club without worrying about an airborne virus, these scenes are a delight. 

Pixar is very proud of the fact that Soul is its first film with a black protagonist; it also features a significant number of black characters in the cast. While the story has its origins in a Pete Docter script dating back to 2016, he brought in African-American writer Kemp Powers, who also gets a co-director credit. There’s clearly been a lot of soul brother searching to make sure the movie will fit into the spirit of 2020, and it gives the film a touch of social consciousness, which is no bad thing. 

The animation is stunning in its three dimensionality and Pixar nerds will doubtless enjoy spotting all the embedded references to the studio's back catalogue. But I missed the coherence and wit of classics like Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and Up and resented Docter’s pop psychology. Soul will doubtless keep its audience occupied for 100 minutes over this locked-down Christmas, but whether it’ll win repeat viewers is another question.


There’s clearly been a lot of soul brother searching to fit into the spirit of 2020


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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