If 2020 had worked out differently, Pixar’s “Soul” would have started its run back at Cannes — the first Pixar effort since “Inside Out” to do so — ahead of a much-anticipated theatrical release. Like a lot of promising cinema on the docket for earlier in the year, those plans fizzled, but the “Soul” train keeps chugging along. The winding path is appropriate for a movie steeped in observations about life’s unpredictable turns. While Disney’s decision to bypass a theatrical release for the film to post “Soul” straight onto Disney+ on Christmas Day doesn’t do any favors to the sorry state of exhibition, “Soul” is well worth signing up for the service, as it’s one of the very best Pixar efforts in years.
It’s also historic: As the first entry in the Pixar canon to center on a Black character, this magical crowdpleaser has obvious representational value, so it’s especially gratifying to see how well it epitomizes the proverbial Pixar touch. Director Pete Docter (who became Pixar’s creative director in the years since “Inside Out”) knows the studio’s song sheet better than anyone and he plays well-versed tunes like a master, refashioning the best of their ingredients into a profound existential look at dream-fulfillment and emotional disconnection.
“Soul” has another enticing “first” going for it: Elaborating on potential first glimpsed in “Coco,” the latest entry marks Pixar’s inaugural salute to the power of the musical form. The movie opens with Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a part-time middle school bandleader trying to teach his students how to play “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be,” the jazz standard by Mercer Ellington (Duke’s son). Like Mercer, Joe has never been able to emerge from the shadow of his father, although Joe’s own pop was more struggling artist than jazz legend.
Joe never imagined that when grey mustache hairs emerged he would be teaching a classroom filled with bored kids. Like his deceased father, the pianist relies on his mother, Libba (Phylicia Rashad), a seamstress who runs a tailor shop, to supplement his livelihood. She laments that he’s become a middle-aged man who still takes his washing to her.
The fork in the road arrives when he’s offered the teaching job full-time with pension and benefits. Does he give up his dreams for stability? It’s a familiar artist-versus-career conundrum that takes a serendipitous turn. At the very moment he’s resigned himself to taking the job, he gets a call from Curley (Questlove), a former pupil saying they need a pianist to play that night with the famed Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett).
Joe shines in his audition: Playing free jazz, the art form that legendary Black musicians used to challenge the conventional jazz rules established by white rule-makers, Joe seems poised for the typical breakout story. But just when Docter (who shares a writing credit with playwright Kemp Powers and producer Mike Jones) seems poised to follow the formula, the scenery takes on a dramatic new form. When Joe falls down a New York manhole, the situation takes a psychedelic turn, the backdrop looks like it was lifted from the cavernous void of “Under the Skin,” and Joe morphs into an avatar seemingly lifted from Caspar the Friendly Ghost.
While “Coco” may have tread some of this turf first, Pixar’s latest life-after-death saga has its own distinctive twist. Joe may have lost his life, but he’s not quite ready to let fate have the last word. Somehow, he manages to become the first soul to escape the road for centuries. “I’m not dying the very day I got my shot,” he screams, a conviction that sends him careening from The Great Beyond to The Great Before, a blurry world where he’s subjected to a program that teaches souls about life, feeding them with a personality and offering a pass to Earth as a graduation present.
It’s a winning setup at once mystical and loaded with intrigue, “Soul” is just getting started. One of the secrets of Pixar’s success over the years has been its ability to forge unusual chemistry among its imaginative characters — Wall-E and Eve, Woody and Bo Peep, Carl and Ellie, the Incredibles. “Soul” is no exception: Before Joe can process his strange new situation, he’s been tasked with mentoring a feisty soul named 22 (Tina Fey), who has spent eons has refusing to see the appeal of planet Earth. Not even mentors such as Muhammad Ali, Mother Theresa, Marie Antoinette or Carl Jung have been able to persuade her otherwise.
So begins a set of dueling priorities between two very different characters — one desperate to return to Earth, the other determined never to go. So begins a clever refashioning of “It’s a Wonderful Life” in the ether, as the odd couple careen through adventures as life-affirming as they are strange and unexpected. At first, Joe and 22 manage to get back to Earth following a visit to Moonwind (Graham Norton), a member of Mystics Without Borders, who finds souls in lost dreams helping to reconnect them with their bodies. This leads to one of the more innovative visual conceits too clever to spoil here, but needless to say, it involves some unnerving body-swapping gags and a literal jazz cat.
It’s a pleasant surprise to see Foxx play against his usual exuberant type. The big vocal performance that saw him win his Oscar for “Ray” is kept in check, fitting Joe’s subdued personality, leaving Fey to exert the vocal gymnastics. At one stage, 22 goes through an album of voices before saying she settled on the most annoying tone possible (although it actually gets endearing with time). Even Norton plays the otherworldly Moonwind without camping up as the story is often left with the microphone.
“Soul” offers up the exact lessons one might expect from a story about second chances: what it takes to discover the joys of living, and how to find the courage to confront hard truths. But the movie doesn’t shy away from addressing the precise hurdles faced by its Black protagonist, even in these supernatural circumstances (including a bit about the challenges of hailing cabs in New York). Joe’s blackness isn’t relegated to a side issue; it’s baked into the essence of the character, and treated as a crucial aspect of his humanity. To this end, “Soul” manages to juggle the surreal humor of “Inside Out” in tandem with its most grounded, socially-conscious narrative ever, and it’s a real wonder to watch those ingredients congeal.
With music at its core, it’s no surprise that the soundtrack is one of the company’s best, although it’s quite as jazzy as one might expect, with the movie’s two worlds separated by different scores. Jon Baptiste provides the original jazz compositions, but the real aural delights come by the way that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross take a leaf out of Mica Levi’s songbook to create an ethereal synthesized sound. The result is a dizzying combination of musical identities that underscore the movie’s layered trajectory.
Yet for all the ambition driving “Soul” through its inventive plot, this is still a slick studio product set on an inevitable path to the Capra-like sentimentality of its closing passages, and ends up in a far more predictable place than it starts. Maybe it’s because the central character is an older man, that the filmmakers felt they needed to pitch more determinedly to younger audiences without the usual winks to adults. Even then, however, “Soul” remains a captivating journey. Like some of the best jazz compositions, it uses a traditional framework to veer off in many unexpected directions, so that even the inevitable end point feels just right.
“Soul” premiered at the 2020 London Film Festival. It will be available on Disney+ on December 25, 2020.