Despite manufacturing more thankless sequels than original films, Pixar’s name has only become increasingly synonymous with emotionally charged storytelling in the past decade – and this is almost entirely thanks to the contributions of Pete Docter. The studio had many notable tear jerking moments in their earliest films, but it was the opening sequence of Docter’s second film for the studio, Up, that solidified their status as Hollywood’s chief wreckers of emotions, turning unsuspecting parents into blubbering messes next to their children.
Docter is hardly the most prolific filmmaker at the studio, with Soul arriving five years after his previous effort Inside Out, but his approach to storytelling, mining his own parental fears and anxieties to create the most recognisably, heartbreakingly human films in their catalogue, has long since surpassed the early efforts of John Lasseter to register as the studio’s distinctive voice. He has described his latest effort as a film that wouldn’t have been possible without having made Inside Out, and in many ways, Soul is an extension of his prior film; a similar examination of self doubt and existential insecurity, only told from the perspective of someone re-evaluating a life of missteps, instead of a scary future ahead.
And yet, despite being the figurehead for introducing a form of emotional profundity to the studio’s storytelling, there is nothing in Soul that feels particularly original in this regard, with the story feeling cobbled together by an algorithm that’s been fed all of Pixar’s greatest hits. You have the race against time in the afterlife as presented in Coco, the themes of ageing and re-evaluating life previously examined in Up, and at one point, there’s even a nod to the joy of taste and smell lifted seemingly verbatim from Ratatouille. You could call Soul a culmination of the themes that have proven to be obsessions for the studio’s biggest names throughout their career, and there are signs of a deeper ambition to take a more philosophical approach in addressing these – it’s just a shame this is all confined within the studio’s now default “race against the clock” storytelling formula, which has long past its power to captivate. There is still fun to be had, but what would have been one of Pixar’s best films had it been released a decade earlier now feels like one of their more formulaic efforts.
After landing his dream gig playing piano with one of his music heroes, middle school music teacher Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) plummets to his death, and finds himself in the afterlife. Not wanting to die before he achieves his dream, he escapes the path to the great beyond and winds up in the Great Before, a place where recently deceased people are teamed up with souls, to give them personality traits and talents before they set off to Earth. Joe is partnered with 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who doesn’t want to be born; whose stubbornness has angered previous mentors including Abraham Lincoln, Mother Theresa and Carl Jung. He quickly realises that this annoying soul is his ticket back down to Earth to achieve his dream, and so the pair hatch a plan to escape, with the help of a mystic (Graham Norton) who can manifest himself in the afterlife.
It isn’t just the storytelling where Soul feels like a natural extension of Inside Out, with Docter experimenting with different animation forms to help bring his vision of the afterlife to, well, life. One of the standout comic moments in the previous film, where Sadness, Joy and Bing Bong take a shortcut that sees them abstract until they are one dimensional, seems key to the design of the afterlife “soul counsellors,” with Docter gaining much comic mileage from pairing the abstract designs next to conventional 3D animated characters. The Earth-bound scenes feature some of Pixar’s most quietly beautiful animation too, bringing a New York neighbourhood to life in a way that accentuates the everyday, building the film’s overall thesis about embracing the little sensations of being alive. Equal plaudits have to go to the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who strip away the orchestral arrangements that characterise Michael Giacchino’s recent scores for the studio, for a playful, pulsating electronica score that acts as a surreal counterpart to John Batiste’s jazz arrangements which accompany the drama in New York.
Docter’s ambition as an animator is sadly not matched by the storytelling, with his screenplay (co-written with Mike Jones and One Night in Miami’s Kemp Powers, the latter is also the film’s co-director) not finding an original way to examine the personal anxieties that inspired the film, serving only to retread familiar ground. This isn’t entirely a problem, as the screenplay still delivers a high gag rate, and remains consistently charming thanks to Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey’s bantering double act – but the fact the film is clearly designed as a thematic companion piece to both Inside Out and Up means it doesn’t feel revelatory, its insights on aging and self perception little different to what Docter has delivered previously. His most ambitious film to date reveals itself to be an unfortunately contrived re-examination that suffers in comparison to his earlier films, which looked at the same themes in a simpler light, and were all the more emotionally rewarding because of that simplicity.
Soul is a mid tier Pixar effort; visually ambitious and consistently funny, but stuck in a storytelling comfort zone that makes it feel formulaic regardless.
This review is from the 64th BFI London Film Festival. The Walt Disney Company will release Soul on December 25 exclusively on Disney+.