It’s like playing a broken Disney record, but Pixar has done it again. Their latest wonderful release, ‘Soul’, which went straight to Disney+ on Christmas Day after the pandemic caused a delay from June, is an existential exploration of the human spark, filled with laughs and emotion. The movie is a creative blend of a tactile, worn-in NYC and a sleek astral plane filled with fanciful characters. Probably the biggest marvel of this computer graphics’ realized film is its warmth and ability to balance its dichotomy throughout.
‘Soul’ begins with an introduction to its main character Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a band teacher in a public elementary school in New York City. The floors and walls look lived-in, from the chipped and stained tile to the perpetually re-used instruments of his students. Joe is pretty average in many ways, but it’s quickly apparent that he does have a talent and moreover, a real passion, for jazz piano. His playing on screen and the music for the Earth-based sequences are represented by Jon Batiste, best known for his jazzy musical stylings on ‘The Late Show With Stephen Colbert”. Right at the moment when he finally gets his break after auditioning for local saxophone star Dorothea (Angela Bassett), he inadvertently steps into an open manhole and the screen cuts to black . . .
It’s at this point that the film takes shape as it moves from a middle-aged man’s struggle with realizing his potential to something much more profound. After some trippy, ‘2001’ style galaxy visuals, Joe finds himself in corporeal form (still rocking his fedora) riding an escalator into the great beyond. The movie makes a massive tonal shift, spaced-out, with clean angles everywhere, complete with the distinct piano tinkling of a Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross score, one that somehow evokes their other masterful cinematic work (‘The Social Network’, ‘Watchmen’, ‘Mank’) but with a bit of welcome whimsy. This is where, through a series of mishaps in this ‘Great Before’, that Foxx’s Joe is forced to team up with Tina Fey’s 22, a soul who has refused to fulfill her role in existence, opting to stay in her globular form for millennia (for reference, the other souls bear numbers in the billions). This unlikely duo proceeds for the rest of the film to find themselves in various inspired situations that inform the multiple themes the movie wrestles with hearteningly and effectively.
Early on and through until the end of ‘Soul’, it is apparent that long time director Pete Docter and his co-director/co-writer Kemp Powers, along with fellow screenwriter Mike Jones, have much to say on the nature of humanity. Docter has been at the center of some of the most effective, heart wrenching, and heady Pixar entertainments with ‘Up’ and ‘Inside Out’. Like those other works, ‘Soul’ similarly takes on weighty ideas of the eternal, internal struggle and the profound effect people have on each other. All this may fly way over the heads of the young children who would initially seem to be the targets of this type of fare, but it’s pretty obvious by the end, that the true target for this story is everyone . . .
Directed By: Pete Docter & Kemp Powers
Written By: Pete Docter, Kemp Powers, & Mike Jones
Running Time: 100 min.
* * * 1/2 (out of four stars) -OR- A–