Pixar Animation

Soul

04/01/21

Disney+

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

Toy Story 4

23/06/19

It’s hard to believe that the original Toy Story first graced cinema screens in 1995, back when my own daughter was a little girl. The film was a game-changer in so many ways, pioneering CG animation and launching the start of Pixar’s amazing run of superb features. Along the years, there were – inevitably – a couple of sequels. Toy Story 2 debuted in 1999, introducing a new character, Jessie (Joan Cusack), and the third instalment, which ambled onto screens in 2010, seemed to provide the perfect end to a consistently excellent trilogy.

Like most people, I wasn’t really overjoyed to learn that Pixar were returning to the well one more time. I mean, ask yourself, is there a fourth part of any film franchise that works? All things considered, then, it’s a credit to Pixar’s undoubted production skills that this is as enjoyable as it is.

Since the toys’ original owner, Andy, headed off to college and donated his collection to Bonnie, Woody (Tom Hanks) has come to terms with the fact that he is no longer top dog in the toy closet, often finding himself left in there with the older members of the team, while Bonnie plays with newer acquisitions. But, he’s well aware that toys must move on. After all, Bo Peep (Annie Potts) suffered that fate in the second film, sent to an unknown destination, and Woody often wonders what became of her. However, he still has the love of a child and that’s the most important thing in the world for any toy, right?

I’ll confess that these early stretches, though as skilfully rendered as ever, do not exactly inspire me. It feels as though we’re retracing old ground. However, when Bonnie is sent to her first day at kindergarten, things pick up a little. She fashions a toy of her own out of a plastic spork and  a length of pipe cleaner, naming her creation Forky and falling unconditionally in love with him. Forky (Tony Hale) struggles to accept his new role as a toy. He thinks of himself as trash and spends most of his time trying to throw himself into the nearest litter bin, but – for Bonnie’s sake – Woody takes on the role of Forky’s minder.

Then Bonnie’s parents decide to take her on a road trip and the whole gang get to go along. The family’s RV does a stop over at an amusement park and it’s here that Woody reconnects with Bo, who has been surviving out on her own for years and has become a plucky, independent adventurer with loftier ambitions than simply being a child’s plaything. From here, the film becomes much more interesting, unveiling a sinister side to proceedings with the appearance of Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a vintage doll with a broken voice box, trapped in a second hand store. She has her own entourage of minders (four incredibly creepy ventriloquist dolls) and, spotting that Woody has the kind of voice box she needs, sees an opportunity to ingratiate herself with the shop owner’s granddaughter, Harmony.

The film has one more trump card to play in the shape of Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) a Canadian stunt motorcyclist (clearly modelled on Evil Knievel), who has been haunted all his life by his inability to match up to the promises made in his advertising campaign. This feels like a role that Reeves was born to play and he does it with glee.

So yes, this is enjoyable enough, even if it doesn’t quite measure up to those illustrious predecessors. There are some problems with the story’s internal logic. I find myself  wondering why, despite their advanced years, the toys still manage to look pristine. Shouldn’t they be a bit scuffed and (whisper it!) damaged by now? Wouldn’t that have made for an interesting strand? And, since Woody is now considered a second level toy, how come he even gets to go on that fateful road trip in the first place?

Perhaps I’m just being picky. The scores of well-behaved youngsters at the afternoon screening I attend are proof that Toy Story 4 does exert considerable charms on its intended audience – and at the end of the day, I have to admit that I enjoy it along with them.

But please, Pixar, don’t be tempted to do a part 5! There’s only one direction to go from here and it’s the place where Forky longs to be!

4 stars

Philip Caveney