What is your life’s purpose? It’s a frighteningly loaded question, one that’s tiring to even think about, let alone answer. But in Soul, Pixar maestro Pete Docter tackles it head-on in what is undoubtedly his most existential, inspiring and life-affirming film to date.
Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a middle school band teacher in New York City. A jazz aficionado since childhood, he never planned on becoming anything but a hugely successful piano player. But as rejection after rejection came his way, he reluctantly set aside his dream and got a “real job”. His luck looks to change one day when he lands a gig at a club with jazz musician Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett in a great but minor role) and her band, but minutes after he aces the audition, a sudden accident causes his soul to become separated from his body. Now stuck in a place called ‘The Great Before’ with an ill-tempered soul known as ‘22’ (Tina Fey), Joe must somehow find a way back to his body on Earth.
Just like Inside Out (2015), Soul strikes a perfect balance between being entertaining and thought-provoking, as well as being accessible to adults and children alike. But while Inside Out centres on the experiences and emotions of a pre-teen girl, Soul seems designed to speak more to an older audience. More than just a lovable character, Joe is easy to relate to and empathise with when you’ve gone through some of the woes of adulthood. He struggles with the monotony of his life, feeling that he was meant for more but had to settle for less, while under pressure from his mother (voiced by Phylicia Rashad) who would rather see him have a pension plan than follow his dreams.
And part of what makes this film special is that Joe isn’t a young adult just starting out on his path; he’s a middle-aged man still holding onto his passion and ambition despite the trials and tribulations that life has thrown at him. It’s a refreshing perspective for an animated film, and it feels like a completely natural and seamless progression from Inside Out.
Ambitious as it might seem to visually represent something as abstract as the human soul and where it came from, the animation fully lives up to the film’s large scale. The souls are cleverly designed in a way that’s appealing to any age. After all, what’s not to love about small, cute, bright green blobs? These other-worldly characters and settings burst with imagination and creativity, but the scenes that take place on plain ol’ Earth are equally stunning and full of colour and vibrancy. Accompanied by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ beautiful score and musician Jon Batiste’s jazz compositions, the film really does sound as gorgeous as it looks.
What continues to be an impressive – but perhaps overlooked – feat in Docter’s films is the portrayal of mental health issues. It’s as if the filmmaker was a therapist or psychologist in a past life; he just gets it. The way he represents depression and anxiety through animation – without ever referring to them by name – is extraordinary. In Inside Out, it was protagonist Riley’s inner emotional dashboard shutting down and losing all colour that signified the numbness of depression. In Soul, Docter finds an equally accurate and hard-hitting metaphor to symbolise the all-consuming, crushing weight of mental illness, which is incredibly resonant and timely given that this year has brought with it so many struggles.
But this is still a Pixar film, and although the director seems to have a penchant for turning his audience into a sobbing mess (the heart-wrenching backstory in Up springs to mind), these emotional moments are beautifully interwoven with love, light and humour. The screenplay – written by Docter along with Mike Jones and One Night in Miami writer Kemp Powers – is both funny and heartfelt, and the cast really bring it to life. Those who were rightly concerned that Pixar’s first Black main character was going to spend all of the film in the form of a green soul needn’t worry, since this is just one part of a multi-faceted story that features a clever, unpredictable and fun plot twist.
Foxx is outstanding in his first ever lead voice role and captures Joe’s personality so effortlessly and passionately, and he’s complemented nicely by comedy veteran Fey, who brings a perfect mix of dry humour and lovability to life-hating 22. An unexpected standout is international treasure Graham Norton, whose performance as a free-spirited guy called Moonwind might come as a surprise to those audiences – particularly in the UK and Ireland – who know him as a presenter. What’s not surprising, however, is how well he brings his natural comedic flair to the voice role, really making the character his own.
Rounding out the supporting cast is musician Questlove as Joe’s friend and drummer Curly, Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs in a small role as Joe’s rival, and various amusing shape-shifting characters that Joe encounters in The Great Before, like Terry (Rachel House) and Jerry (Richard Ayoade). House, the New Zealand actor of Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Thor: Ragnarok fame, is particularly fun to watch as Terry, a jobs-worthy ‘soul counter’ who turns detective after finding out a soul is missing.
Soul is about many things – dreams and passion, success and failure – but most of all it’s about discovering what makes life worth living. As cliché as that may sound, the message is put forward in a wholly original and sincere way, making for a genuinely moving and therapeutic exploration of the human condition. A true delight for the eyes, ears, mind and spirit; Soul is an absolute triumph.
Soul will be available on Disney + on December 25.