Out of tune and off-key, middle-school students struggle to perform Mercer Ellington’s jazz standard "Things Ain’t What They Used To Be" as Pixar’s 23rd film opens. Things sure ain’t for film releases, as Soul will now arrive down Disney+’s chimney, bypassing cinemas.
You can rely on this, though: co-directed by Pete Docter (Up, Inside Out) and playwright/screenwriter Kemp Powers, Soul affirms Pixar’s ability to tackle life’s biggies with exquisite layers of depth, wit, and world-building detail, even as it upholds the studio’s reinvigorated mission to evolve at every turn.
The first shift here is Pixar’s emphasis on a Black lead wrestling with adult compromises. Joe (voiced warmly by Jamie Foxx) is a New York teacher who dreams of being a jazz muso, only for an accident to dump him on the cosmic travelator to The Great Beyond.
Desperate to live again, Joe reaches The Great Before, where unformed souls discover their pre-birth personalities – except for ‘meh’-faced soul number 22 (a nicely sardonic Tina Fey), who can’t find a purpose she likes. The man who wants to live and the soul who doesn’t soon unite, sparking off a comic-existential quest that’s not for the spoiling.
Though echoes of Wreck-It Ralph and Inside Out emerge, Soul works jazzy twists into its familiar odd-couple set-up. An epiphanic fish-out-of-water romp develops, complete with body-swap larks, profound barbershop visits, busker encounters and other revelatory episodes besides, all subtly woven into deceptively philosophical themes about life and how to live it.
Meanwhile, Pixar’s synaesthetic lustre and brisk invention add enrapturing backbeats. Bustling with vigour, Jon Batiste’s jazz score blends beautifully with the photorealist New York City scenes. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ limpid synth pulses reflect the abstract celestial realms, with their Ghibli-esque souls and kindly, almost avant-garde-ian ‘Counsellors’.
Quick-fire comic counterpoints lighten the existential and metaphysical loads, including wicked sight gags involving Cubist soul-counter Terry (Rachel House) and a midsection that finds new things to do with comedy cats.
As for emotions, steel 'em. If the free-jazz plotting can seem more invested in the micro-details than the macro-story, there are reasons why. Soul begins by asking questions about finding your life purpose, recalling Mike Wazowski’s desire to scare or Remy’s culinary nose. But another perspective emerges, one likely to leave you blubbing over the tinsel come Christmas. For the Bing Bong-grade finale, Soul hits delicate emotional keys with a seeming ease that only true virtuosos can muster. Peak Pixar, it’ll feed your soul.