Why is Pixar so brilliant at death?

From Up’s moving life story to the father-son parting of Onward, the animation powerhouse has never shirked from profound contemplation

There comes a time in the life of a writer, director and, perhaps, a company when the days shorten, the shadows lengthen and contemplating the inevitable must begin. The guy in the cloak with the retro lawn equipment can’t be ignored any longer: Death. In Pixar’s latest film, Soul, mortality springs itself with supreme bad timing on protagonist Joe Gardner, a New York jazzman about to play the gig of his life when he falls down a manhole. After 2017’s Coco and this year’s Onward, this is Pixar’s third film about death in as many years. Is this fixation the Californian animation giant’s midlife crisis in multimillion-dollar CGI form?

Soul, directed by Pete Docter, is a classy offering with smart colouring-book metaphysics in the vein of his 2015 film Inside Out, as Joe attempts to escape the “Great Beyond” and return to his body, via the “Great Before”. This is the realm where nascent souls must find their spark – their animating passion in life – and are then dispatched to Earth. Visually drawing on Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death, broaching the dark subject for children with life-affirming insouciance, and – featuring the company’s first black lead character – a big diversity coup, it’s a typically slick, four-quadrant-pleasing, stock price-boosting entertainment package. This is what Pixar do.

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