Pete Docter




The release of a new Pixar movie is generally a cause for some celebration, even when it can’t be viewed in its proper home, a giant cinema screen. This latest release, directed and co-written by Pete Docter, is yet another marriage between extraordinary animation and heartwarming storyline. If Soul doesn’t quite measure up to the likes of Coco or Up, it nonetheless rarely puts a foot wrong and even manages the seemingly impossible, by making me enjoy its jazz-heavy score.

This is the story of Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a middle-aged jazz pianist, still dreaming of making it big but hedging his bets by teaching high schoolers some basic musicianship. There’s an enduring cinematic trope that loves to depict teaching as a hopeless last resort for the not-quite-talented-enough, but Soul cleverly avoids making that mistake. A scene where Joe is enraptured by the improvisational skills of Connie (Cora Champommier) cleverly shows the true importance and rewards of being an inspirational teacher.

Joe’s shot at the big time finally comes out of nowhere, when a former student puts him forward as a potential band member to play alongside ace saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Joe’s over the moon – this is the break he’s been waiting for – and, when he manages to audition successfully, he’s understandably elated. He dances jubilantly out onto the street, falls through an open manhole and er… dies.

Before we can even say “Oops!” he’s in The Great Before, a staging post for The Great Beyond, where he encounters soul counsellors (all called Jerry), tasked with the tricky job of preparing unborn souls for life. Mistaken for just such a counsellor, Joe is assigned reluctant soul number ’22’ (Tina Fey) and, when he discovers that she is the possessor of a free pass back to earth, he spots an opportunity to make it to that gig he’s been looking forward to. But, en route back to life, a disastrous mix-up occurs…

A key section of Soul really puts me in mind of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1946 film, A Matter of Life and Death, and I’m still uncertain whether it’s a deliberate homage or just a big coincidence. It probably doesn’t matter. What this film does really efficiently is to mine plenty of genuine laughs from some fairly unpromising material. You can probably number on one hand the cartoons that feature a dead person in the lead role, but this manages to find the funnies in the premise and that’s its strongest suit.

As ever, with Pixar, it’s the characterisations that keep me hooked and there’s the added bonus of several maddeningly familiar voices that have me reaching for IMDb to confirm who’s who – is that Richard Ayoade? It is! And could that be… Graham Norton? Yes it could! The animation style runs from an ultra-realistic approach for the sections set in New York to freeform 2D creations for cosmic events. This makes for an intriguing contrast as the story initially cuts back and forth between two worlds, before the different styles begin to seep into each other.

And, if the film’s ultimate ‘message’ nudges perilously close to fridge-magnet territory, well, it’s nonetheless a heartening one, that surely only a hardened curmudgeon could disagree with.

Then there’s that vibrant soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Finch, which certainly lives up to the film’s title. Like I said, this may not the best Pixar ever, but it ain’t half bad either.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Inside Out

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Viewers of a certain vintage may retain fond memories of The Numskulls – a weekly story in The Beano which featured the inside of a young boy’s head and the cartoon creatures that operated his moods, emotions and functions. The similarities are probably coincidental, but with Inside Out, it’s as though the team at Pixar took that same basic premise and elevated it to levels of sophistication that The Beano could only dream of.

Most of the action takes place inside the emotional world of a young girl called Riley, who has recently been uprooted from her home in Minnesota to live in an unfamiliar new house in San Francisco. The dominant force in her world up to this point has been Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) but as Riley’s comfortable existence is rocked by unforeseen problems, the other resident emotions – Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear start to exert their influences too. Writer/directors Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen have created a complex internal world where everything depends on the different emotions working together as a team. Joy is convinced that in order for Riley to be truly happy, her influence must dominate proceedings. When Sadness (Phyllis Smith) attempts to be involved, the equilibrium is upset and Riley’s world appears to be in danger of coming apart at the scenes. Joy and Sadness now have to team up in order to put her back on an even keel.

Pixar have always been brilliant at creating films that are as appealing to adults as they are to children and after a recent run of disappointments (Cars 2 anyone?) it’s great to see them back at the top of their game. Indeed, Inside Out is so sophisticated you can’t help suspecting that the adults get by far the better deal here; where else would you find a kid’s animation that gleefully references Roman Polanski’s Chinatown? Don’t get me wrong, the film is surely big enough and shiny enough to keep the younger members of the audience happy, but they’ll be missing so many sly in-jokes and observations that can really only be fully appreciated once maturity has kicked in.

Suffice to say that this is delightfully inventive stuff that never loses pace or its unerring sense of direction, and there’s a conclusion here that will wring real tears from all but the stone-hearted. When Pixar was purchased by the Disney organisation, there was much dark speculation that it would find itself neutered by the House of Mouse, so it’s heartening to report that Inside Out steers well clear of the usual ‘quest for happiness’ ending and opts instead for something a tad more realistic. Don’t miss this one – and whatever you do, don’t feel that you need to have a child in tow in order to enjoy it. This film would give Sigmund Freud a run for his money.

Don’t be in too much of a hurry to vacate your seats either. In the usual Pixar tradition, there’s an end credit reel that provides some of the film’s funniest moments.

5 stars

Philip Caveney