A new Pixar film is always cause for celebration. And that goes double when the man behind the camera is Pete Docter, who has brought some of the studio's best movies to the screen, including Up, Monsters Inc and the simply perfect Inside Out. With the help of co-director Kemp Powers – who also wrote the script with Docter and Mike Jones – he has constructed another dive into the human psyche with Soul. It never quite scales the lofty heights of the director's best work, but it's another delightful and complex hit from Pixar.
Refreshingly, it also focuses on a Black lead character. Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a part-time music teacher who nurses a dream to become a jazz pianist. When he's offered a full-time teaching gig, he's conflicted, despite his mum Libba (Phylicia Rashad) claiming that “playing music will finally be your real career”. When former student Curly (Questlove) offers him an audition to play alongside jazz legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), he leaps at what he perceives as his last chance. The audition goes well, but then he falls down a manhole and finds his soul separated from his body en route to the Great Beyond.
This all takes place before the title card even appears. Soul has a lot of plot early on and the ambition only continues as Joe rebels against his own death and finds himself stranded instead in the Great Before, mistaken by its attendants for someone tasked with mentoring nascent souls before they travel down to Earth and are united with a body. He meets troublesome young soul 22 (Tina Fey), who takes joy in infuriating a string of mentors with her complete lack of desire to become a fully-rounded human being. The land of souls, she reasons, is way better than Earth.
It's an intriguing conceit and one which Docter is absolutely the right man to play with. The subject matter is surprisingly dark for a kids' film, with lines like “my life is meaningless” and “you can't crush a soul here; that's what life on Earth is for” commonplace in the often devastating script. This is Pixar, though, and so the more grimly philosophical elements come with a side order of considerable heart and plenty of knockabout comedy. One character spends most of the movie trapped in the body of a cat, with exactly the level of slapstick and silliness you'd expect.
This is also one of the most visually inventive Pixar movies to date. Docter and Powers do very interesting things with the idea of the soul realm and its bizarre custodians – voiced by the likes of Rachel House and Richard Ayoade – who appear to take the form of ethereal, glowing pencil sketches. There's also a compellingly hopeless quasi-graveyard of “lost souls” – visualised as cyclops-like mud creatures – into which a spiritual thinker voiced with entertaining pep by Graham Norton sails on a psychedelic pirate ship. Pixar can never be accused of playing it safe.
With that said, though, Soul sometimes struggles to make its points clearly enough. Just as with Inside Out, Docter and Powers explode the central conceit in a variety of intriguing directions but, where that movie pushed every idea and argument all the way to its logical conclusion, Soul lacks the courage of its convictions. There are so many ideas at play that seem to be missing their final flourish – the extra detail that would provide the full stop at the end of their sentences. In particular, the film introduces the idea of a “spark” as the final ingredient of a nascent soul and criticises the idea that a soul's spark is equivalent to a person's “purpose”, but never quite completes its argument.
Foxx and Fey do decent work as the lead voices, but it would be remiss not to note the movie's sad repetition of a disappointing trope surrounding people of colour who are cast as animated leads, only to be concealed during the action. It's actually Fey who is able to express the most emotional depth, though her performance is a long way from the incredible work pulled off by Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith in Inside Out. Meanwhile, the likes of Rashad, Ayoade and Hamilton standout Daveed Diggs make the most of their brief roles.
Naturally, despite the flaws of the movie, Pixar delivers an emotional finale which overcomes any of the issues with its storytelling. A bravely lengthy montage of quiet contemplation prior to the finale is allowed to sit and marinate for long enough that there won't be a dry eye in the house, even if there's perhaps a contrivance or two too far before the credits roll. This might not be peak Pixar, and it certainly isn't the best thing Pete Docter has ever made, but the creative flair involved is undeniable – not least when it comes to the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Whatever Soul does wrong, an animated movie ready to explore humanity's darker edges like this should always receive a considerable amount of praise.