Pixar has crafter a beautiful if completely predictable afterlife adventure that pushes the visuals bounds of animation while adhering to a well trodden formula.
The movie follows Joe a middle-aged music teacher with the dreams and skills to be a professional jazz musician. he has lived his life in single-minded pursuit of this goal. One day he gets his big break, but he falls down an open manhole and ends up in the afterlife. Joe tries desperately to get back into his own body in order to continue to pursue his musical dreams.
The movie is beautiful. The animation is on another level. Compare the look and feel of this movie to any other animated film, and its superlative quality is immediately apparent. Pixar has found a way to duplicate the qualities of an actual camera in their animation. They use soft focus to accentuate intimacy. They create a lifelike lighting scheme that accurately duplicates sunlight. Creating a beautiful moment late in the film when Joe catches a fallen helicopter seed. Their attention to detail and the quality of the output are stunning.
They also embrace surrealist and expressive imagery in this film in a way I haven’t seen Pixar do. It called to mind Fantasia or the best abstract work from early Disney. When Joe gets into the zone while playing piano, expressive colors and images fill the world around him and show us what jazz looks like. The afterlife is a gloriously odd creation that embraces this surrealist aesthetic and gives us a vision of the afterlife unlike any other.
The problem with the movie is the utterly predictable plotting. You can set your watch by this movie. At the five minute mark there’s going to be an inciting incident that changes Joes world. At the ten minute mark Joe will be thrust into an amazing adventure. At the 45 minute mark there’s going to be a twist. At twenty minutes to the end the main characters are going to split up in a manufactured argument which will launch us into a action packed conclusion.
If you’ve seen a Pixar movie, you know what’s going to happen and when. Really if you’ve seen a major blockbuster in the last ten years you know what will happen and when. They all follow the standard heroes journey three act structure. For all their visual invention, they need to invest in a new story structure.
This didn’t ruin the movie for me. I was still moved by the ending. I laughed when an accidental switch is made. I found the questions it raised about life thought provoking. But I found I didn’t fully engage with the movie. The predictable nature of the plot just felt artificial to me. I never got into the story because the machinations behind the story were too obvious. I couldn’t suspend my disbelief.
I want to end on a positive note and comment on the wonderful voice cast. Jamie Foxx is great as Joe. Tina Fey is delightful as an unborn spirit. Richard Ayoade brings his wonderful off kilter timing to an afterlife entity. Alice Braga has this soothing calm she brings to her character. Graham Norton and Rachel House both bring their A game. It’s a truly great voice they’ve assembled.
It’s a solid technical outing with some great moments and a nice message. It just needed more surprise or invention in its story for it to really shine.
Mostly my cup of tea. B