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Hannah Woodhead

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Soul – first-look review

Jamie Foxx is a jazz musician reckoning with the afterlife in Pixar’s best film in quite some time.

It used to be that audiences had to wait a few years between Pixar films, as each one took a long time to produce, and as such, the results were always highly anticipated by adults and children alike. Now, as Pixar – alongside Studio Ghibli – are perhaps the most famous animation studio on the planet, the wait between their films has become much shorter, thanks to Disney’s involvement and technological advancement.

But lately it’s felt a little like those clever folks in Emeryville were phoning it in. Their last release (Onward, approximately 20 years ago, in March of this year) was an underwhelming elven adventure starring Chris Pratt and Tom Holland, and prior to that came two sequels in the form of Toy Story 4 and Incredibles 2, which didn’t quite live up to the magic of their predecessors. It’s something of a relief, then, that their latest original story is their best work since 2015’s Inside Out.

Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a middle-aged middle-school band teacher in New York City, who’s been beaten down by life repeatedly despite his talent and passion for jazz music. When he’s finally offered a gig with legendary saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) he won’t let anything stand in his way – not even death.

After an unfortunate accident with an open manhole cover, he’s transported to The Great Before, where souls are assigned personalities before being sent to earth to become people. In his attempts to get back to earth and his chance at stardom, he’s partnered with 22 (Tina Fey) an apathetic soul who doesn’t want to become human.

If Coco dealt with The Great Beyond and letting go, Soul is about grabbing what you’ve got with both hands and celebrating the joy of being alive. Whether it’s playing the piano, eating a slice of pepperoni pizza or just watching the wind blow through the trees, there’s so much admiration for the very act of being in the film – which perhaps hits even harder given the uncertainty which occupies every waking minute of our present day.

Despite the whacky body-swap plot involving a chubby cat called Mr Mittens, Soul also feels more consciously geared towards an older audience, which makes sense considering most of the children who grew up with Pixar’s earliest films are now in their thirties and forties. It’s difficult to say how much mileage children will get out of the storyline, but the cute critters and shimmery teal design of the Great Before are child-friendly enough to not make death seem completely harrowing.

New York has never looked as pretty as it does in the Pixar universe, and the score – composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross with jazz arrangements by Jon Batiste – is a thing of beauty, combining the ethereal with the experimental with enough enthusiasm to convert even the jazz-sceptics.

Here’s hoping that Pixar’s investment in new storytelling talent continues; bringing in the supremely talented playwright Kemp Powers as co-director and co-writer has resulted in a story that feels fresh and funny while retaining the Pixar spark. And as all their best films have a fundamentally valuable message, so does this one.

For everyone who’s ever felt they weren’t good enough, Soul suggests a move towards accepting that life isn’t something you can figure out on the first try.

Published 11 Oct 2020

Tags: BFI Disney Pixar

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