When Soul premiered at the London Film Festival this week, with socially distanced screenings, Pixar chiefs could be forgiven for feeling a little pang. Like his last film Inside Out, Pete Docter's animated adventure was originally due to get the red-carpet treatment at Cannes this year until the Covid-19 pandemic saw to it that the world's most famous film festival, like so much else this year, was cancelled.
Soul was swiftly moved by Disney, which own Pixar, to a November berth. But a recent rise in coronavirus cases around the world has left cinemas closed, particularly in key US cities such as New York and Los Angeles.
Last week, shortly after Disney shifted a number of its other films to 2021 releases, the company announced that Soul would now play on Disney+ in December in regions where the streaming service is available.
It yet again crystallises the existential problem that the film industry has wrestled with this year: big screen versus little screen. In April, Universal attempted to beat the pandemic by bypassing cinemas and offering Trolls: World Tour to audiences via video-on-demand. No offence to the day-glo characters voiced by Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick, but that was a not-particularly-anticipated sequel with a youthful fanbase undoubtedly quite happy to sit at home and sing along.
Soul is an entirely different prospect. Since the departure of John Lasseter from Pixar, Docter is the chief spark of inspiration at the company. His last two films, Up (2009) and Inside Out (2015), won Oscars for Best Animated Feature, and are among the most imaginative and innovative Pixar movies of the past 25 years (and that's putting them up against such classics as Toy Story and Finding Nemo). Soul is another stone-cold classic, every bit as beautiful.
The first Pixar movie to feature an African-American lead character, the timing in the year of the Black Lives Matter protests also feels spot on. Co-directing/writing with Docter is Kemp Powers, an African-American screenwriter who has no previous animation experience but is clearly a huge talent (he also scripted the coming One Night In Miami, a fictional account of a meeting between four black icons: Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown).
At the centre of Soul is Joe (voiced by Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx), a middle-aged New York teacher who dreams of playing piano in jazz clubs. He believes his life is a failure. So does his mother. But then he gets a break – the chance to tinkle the ivories for Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), a no-nonsense sax player who grooves in a club called the Half Note. As he leaves his audition on cloud nine – narrowly missing several near-deaths – he falls down a manhole.
The next thing Joe knows, he’s now a soul (still wearing his hat and glasses) heading up an ethereal escalator towards “the great beyond”. Fleeing the inevitable, he finds his way to “the great before”, a pre-amble for souls being prepped for their time on Earth. All he wants to do is get back to his own body and play that gig he’s been dreaming of, but that’s easier said than done when you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil.
Soul can be considered a companion to Inside Out, which visualised emotions inside a young girl. This metaphysical masterclass does something similar. Joe is eventually paired with 22 (Tina Fey), a moody soul who never found her "spark" and now fears living down below. "You can't crush a soul here," she explains, when a few sprightly looking souls almost get squished. "That's what life on Earth is for."
There's even an area called 'the zone', a place where artists, musicians or sportspeople find divine inspiration. It's also where untethered lost souls are doomed to wander. The sheer scope of Soul is breathtaking, and that's before you even consider the animation. One sequence, as a dazed Joe bursts out into the New York streets into a cacophony of noise, is simply dazzling. Likewise, the grimy subway is rendered in such detail you can practically smell the stench.
It brings us back to this idea of debuting the film on Disney+. Already Mulan – another exquisite-looking movie practically begging for the big screen – landed on there with a pay-per-view price tag. Now, with cinemas in dire straits, Disney has taken the calculated route of sending Soul straight to streaming in the hope of increasing its 60 million-plus subscriber base. But this isn't a Trolls sequel; this is a Pixar masterpiece and, arguably, the most grown-up film it's ever made.
There are nods to Carl Jung and Copernicus. Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues plays on the soundtrack, alongside jazz music arranged by Jon Batiste. Even if it's a simple story about not wasting a minute of your time on Earth, it's full of philosophical musings about the afterlife. Yes, there's a cute cat and a chase sequence that appears to be mandatory in any American children's animation, but this feels like a big-screen experience with big ideas.
While some will be fortunate to catch Soul at cinemas in countries where Disney+ is unavailable, many will not. Of course, Covid-19 has caused far more misery than depriving audiences of seeing a Pixar movie in their local movie house. But with cinemas currently crying out for content or facing permanent closure, there's something heartbreaking when a film this beautiful is being teleported straight to the small screen. It seems Disney really has no soul.