Just what exactly makes for a well-lived and satisfying life?
It’s sounds like a simply enough question but dig down, as Pixar’s latest animation masterpiece Soul does with poignancy, honesty, good humour and rich imagination, and it becomes quickly apparent that there’s a far bigger answer waiting for someone to hear it.
In this instance, that someone is Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle school music teacher who has yearned all his life for a stellar career as a jazz pianist and who is convinced that herein lies the way to perfect peace and contentment.
You can understand why; dreams are highly seductive things, bound up with hope, optimism and an unwavering belief that once this holy grail is found, all the less than optimal things about being alive will fall away in the energising glow of goals realised.
When you’re stuck on a train going to work, or in Joe’s case, a packed New York subway car, it’s a highly attractive idea that all your cares and woes can be dismissed summarily by the attainment of a long-held dream.
But life is never that simple is it, and when Joe’s soul is separated from his body in an accident, one borne incidentally of his excitement at being asked to play piano for revered jazz musician Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) via an old student, Lamont “Curley” Baker (Questlove), whose life Joe changed through his passion and love for music, he discovers that the spark that gives your life meaning and purpose may not be as straightforward as he always thought.
Being a Pixar film, and especially one from much-lauded writer and director Pete Docter, who brought up the luminously affecting wonders that are Up and Inside Out, you know the journey to such a momentous life epiphany is going to be a nuanced and thoughtful one, that avoids pat answers and delves pretty deeply into the meatier issues of existence.
And that is exactly what comes to pass, with Joe’s journey, first to the very edge of The Great Beyond, and then to The Great Before, now rebadged, for branding purposes naturally, as the You Seminar, bringing him face-to-face in movingly revelatory fashion with the subtle nuances of what makes a life worth living.
What makes this so extra special and impacting is that the whole time Joe is learning these lessons, he is on the cusp of death, caught between this world and the next which Docter renders in a way that makes sense, especially to kids, but also to adults too who for a variety of reasons, do their best to ignore death as much as they can.
He has some help getting to the existentially epiphanic finish line.
Key to his journey to a happier, more fulfilled life, is 22 (Tina Fey), a proto-soul who has been hanging around The Great before for so long that she has had everyone from Archimedes to Abraham Lincoln and Mother Theresa as mentors, all of them fruitlessly engaged in helping her find her spark and thus be ready to jump through the Earth Portal and begin her life in the mortal realm.
They may not look like it at first but Joe and 22 are very much kindred spirits, both scared in their own way to live life to its fullest extent.
When an accident sends 22 and Joe to a place they never expected to be and in a form that freaks them both out in equal measure, they begin to learn that living, truly living, is far more wondrously complex than either had suspected.
The transcendent joy of Soul is that it reveals that what first appears to be a simple answer, is in fact anything but, launching a richly complex but wholly accessible exploration of what it means to be truly and exuberantly, lollipop suckingly alive.
It sets out on this illuminating journey to self discovery with Pixar’s trademark blend of astonishing feats of imaginative storytelling, visual flourishes that are as funny as they are meaningful (a giant pink mystical galleon with rainbow tie-dyed sails, crewed by floaty New Agers including Moonwind, voiced by Graham Norton? Yes, please!), and a willingness to go to some very hard but necessary places (such as Joe’s confronting but healing discussion with his over-protective mum, voiced by the incomparable Phylicia Rashad, about what really makes him happy).
It also makes generous use of a supporting cast of characters who add a great deal of humour and pathos to a story already abundantly rich in both.
Take Jerry, a multi-dimensional being of many parts, voiced by Alice Braga and Richard Ayoade with pep, verve and a glorious sense of silly but heartfelt whimsy, who is drawn in Picasso-esque single line drawings that always feel vivaciously alive, an important aspect in an film that is all about the richness and possibility of life wherever and whoever and whenever you may be.
Terry, the assiduous numbers man voiced by Rachel House, is a manic off-the-wall delight with some of the best lines in the movie and animated sequences that vividly highlight how gloriously good the animation in Soul is across the board.
The brilliance of Pixar is that it not only accepts that life is is fiendishly and confoundingly complex while also being delightfully, exuberantly rich with glorious possibility, but that it finds a way to simultaneously, and with great impact and meaning, communicate this to adults and kids in ways that really get the message cross without once feeling ham-fisted about it.
That makes sense – Pixar is, and has never been, one for glib easy answers and yet nor does it wallow in pretentious complexities for the sake of it.
Rather, as Soul inspirationally and emotionally makes clear with luminously lovely animation, sparkling characters, an engaging narrative and visual and dialogue inventiveness, it strikes a balance between deep, thoughtful pondering and accessible articulation, giving us in this immensely rewarding instance, a film that makes you realise life can be beautiful and vivaciously alive but that it’s not a one size fits all, with all of us capable of finding and living our “spark” in ways we never thought possible.