“Your life is sad and pathetic, and you’re working so hard to get back to it,” 22 marvels. “I mean, why?” For Joe, the answer is simple: because of what it’s about to become.
Naturally, it’s not that simple. But the specific complications Docter and his co-writers Kemp Powers and Mike Jones introduce have the kind of existential heft that might be more typically associated with Japan’s Studio Ghibli, even if the tone of their delivery is as warm-hearted as the Pixar standard.
Jazz is all well and good, Soul happily concedes – and the various jazz piano numbers in the film, performed by Jon Batiste, are very good indeed. But what if we haven’t been put on Earth to play it – or, for that matter, do anything at all? What if William Blake’s grain of sand and wild flower really are all there is to it?
Great animation can communicate wildly complex ideas with head-spinning clarity and wit, as Docter capably proved with Inside Out – a film which staged the interplay of emotions in an 11-year-old’s head like a vintage sitcom. If anything, Soul pushes this capacity for revelation even further: there are moments of true Blakean mystery and wonder here, expressed with a crispness that feels like a lightbulb snapping on above your head. (One scene in which Joe surveys a series of totally unremarkable everyday objects on the lid of his piano flies straight into the pantheon of Most Emotionally Merciless Pixar Moments.)
Visual as well as thematic echoes of Ghibli abound. The monstrous ‘lost souls’ that prowl the metaphysical wastes evoke the cursed animal gods of Princess Mononoke, while the souls themselves are like Disneyfied versions of that same film’s kodama tree spirits, with their pebble-round heads and gentle, glow-worm hues.