After falling down a manhole, music teacher and jazz pianist Joe (Jamie Foxx) is late for his dream gig, both in terms of being dead and in the sense of Pixar finally featuring black protagonists.
While long overdue, 2020’s Soul provides an apt premise to focus on the African American experience, noting the way improvised music allows the player to put their soul into a performance and to spontaneously feel every moment; a cool tonic to cinema’s usual emphasis on dreams and desires. Sadly these ideas are so literally represented that Soul seems to warrant its own Pixar-style lesson, of a studio so busy chasing cultural relevance that it loses sight of how to tell a story.
Where Toy Story 3 and Monsters, Inc. synthesised imagination, emotion and comedy into fun adventures for children that also worked for adults, pictures like Soul and Inside Out have leaned into earnest, sombre didacticism, too tied up in exposition to really make us care about the characters. Soul doesn’t even appear to be for kids, unless they’re having a very early midlife crisis or regularly watch The Aristocats and say things like, “This would be better if the cats were incorporeal.”
Like Inside Out the conceit requires much of the action to take place in sterile digital environments, a stark contrast to the beautifully bustling New York City where the animation comes alive. The occasionally surprising cast includes Graham Norton, Richard Ayoade and Questlove, and the all-too-brief musical moments are short-lived highlights. But since Soul never decides if it wants to be a jazz movie, a body-swap comedy or a TED Talk on metaphysics, it winds up falling between the gaps.
Great stories incorporate their ideas into relatable scenarios so we can absorb them almost subliminally. You can make a film about the soul or emotions without literally making it about souls or emotions, just as music can express a thought without words. But Pixar seems uninterested in leaving anything open to interpretation, in which case jazz was probably the wrong place to start.