Ancient cultures had their own ways of teaching children about death. In ours, we have Pixar, whose film-makers have now spent a number of movies pondering loss and eternity. After Coco in 2017 — a bittersweet tale of grief and Mexico’s Día de los Muertos — there was Onward, returning to bereavement and the spirits, released earlier this year.
Now comes Soul, set largely in the hereafter of a gifted jazz pianist whose day job is teaching music at a New York middle school. To help young minds get used to mortality, the movie thus offers a second newsflash they may find even harder to process — the fact a teacher might have a life outside the classroom.
That life belongs to the genial, naggingly dissatisfied Joe Garner (Jamie Foxx). But not for long. No sooner has he clinched the gig of his dreams, than Joe announces he can die happy — a big enough wink for all ages. The gag extends into a comic grand slam of frantic crosswalks, plummeting brick stacks and literal banana skins, each deftly evaded. Finally though, well: life, 100 per cent fatality rate, etc.
And then? “It’s complicated,” Joe is told on the other side, no understatement on an astral plane where age-old queries about what happens next are answered in some metaphysical detail. For his part, Joe is now a disembodied soul, rendered as a small blue-white peppermint-coloured blob. This much recalls director Pete Docter’s last Pixar film, the brilliant Inside Out.
It is not the only homage. Visually Soul is a dense gumbo of movie buffery and promiscuous riffing. Endlessness begins with a cosmic stairway that tips its hat to A Matter of Life and Death; there is Beatles-y psychedelia and even a pinch of the Thai arthouse marvel Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Did I mention the Cubist “soul counsellors”? Let no one accuse Docter of lacking imagination. Yet the plot sweetly boils down to Joe seeking a second chance on Earth, a hymn to the simple pleasures of cheap pizza and a good haircut.
We can only guess what has nudged Pixar into its funereal mood. (If the studio were a friend, you might suggest taking up running.) Regardless, Soul finds the company doing the minor-chord uplift it does so well, even an inch short of top form. As often with its films, the lingering question is who the movie has really been made for. It isn’t only that the best jokes involve Jung and hedge funds. The life lessons too are the melancholy kind likely to ring truer at 48 than eight.
Still, the movie will make countless children happy this Christmas, able to indulge their parents by keeping them company as they switch on Disney Plus, watching the joy in their weary, middle-aged eyes.
On Disney Plus from December 25
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