“Soul,” a beautiful rumination on the meaning of life, leaps to a high place among Pixar Animation Studios' modern-day classics. Writer-directors Pete Docter (“Up,” “Monsters, Inc.,” “WALL•E.”) and Kemp Powers lighten their soul-stirring story with frenetic slapstick and otherworldly adventure.
Streaming starting Christmas Day on Disney+, “Soul” opens with the best and worst day in the life of middle-school band teacher Joe Gardner. The masterfully executed pre-credits prelude hooks viewers into Joe’s journey of a lifetime. And though the teacher has a big lesson to learn, the filmmakers don’t preach.
Jamie Foxx, whose previous portrayal of a musician, as Ray Charles in “Ray,” won an Academy Award, speaks the role of the gangly, bespectacled Joe. Despite being a talented jazz pianist in New York City, Joe has never achieved his dream of being a full-time musician. Warmly inhabiting the animated Joe, Foxx poignantly expresses the character’s swift succession of soul-shaking emotions.
Most of Joe’s middle-school band students aren’t notably talented. Trombone player Connie (Cora Champommier) is the exception, but the swinging solo she plays in class comes across as more faux pas than magical moment. Connie practically apologizes, but Joe, unlike Connie’s classmates, realizes that she’s demonstrated the power of music.
Later in his school office, Joe gets a call from a former student, Curley (Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson). It’s a chance-of-a-lifetime offer to an audition for a gig with jazz star Dorothea Williams.
Angela Bassett and her animated Dorothea command every scene they’re in.
“So, we’re down to middle-school band teachers now,” Dorothea deadpans in Joe’s direction. “Get on up here, Teach. We ain’t got all day.”
During his audition, Joe enters “the zone,” the beyond-the-physical-world place musicians rise to when they’re inspired. In a feat of animation, Joe’s fingers move brilliantly over the keyboard. The filmmakers insured authenticity by picking Jon Batiste — the Kenner native, pianist and recording artist who leads the band for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” — to compose and play Joe’s performances and be a model for Joe at the piano.
Joe, over the top with excitement after he gets the prestigious gig with Dorothea, lunges out of the Half Note jazz club, oblivious to the frantic cityscape. During a marvelously fluid, action-packed sequence, Joe dodges multiple potentially lethal encounters — until his luck runs out.
Disembodied from his seriously injured body, Joe’s soul resembles Casper the Friendly Ghost, small and bluish, but still with human Joe’s ever-present hat and glasses.
“I have a gig tonight,” the unbelieving musician tells himself. “I’m not dying today. Not when my life has just started.”
Suspenseful scenes and contemplative moments follow as Joe, a desperate soul, struggles to reclaim his earthly life.
“Soul” contrasts the warm colors and intricate details of Joe’s earthly environs with the cool abstraction of the Great Before. He’s not supposed to be in the Great Before — the place where new souls assume their personalities — but that’s where he accidentally falls when he escapes the Great Beyond.
In the Great Before, Joe meets Soul No. 22, a baby soul who stubbornly refuses to leave the Great Before.
“You can’t crush a soul here,” 22 tells Joe. “That’s what life on Earth is for.”
As 22, Tina Fey speaks another of the film’s A-list voice performances, skating blithely through action and comedy and diving into soul-scarring tragedy without a net.
Beyond principal characters Joe and 22, the supporting cast has memorable scenes, too, including Phylicia Rashad as Joe’s mother, Libba, a successful businesswoman who disapproves of her son’s jazz dreams; and Donnell Rawlings as Dez, Joe’s straight-talking barber.
In multiple creative, technical and metaphysical ways, “Soul” is another major achievement for Pixar, and an obvious contender for best animated feature awards.
STARRING: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Phylicia Rashad, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Angela Bassett, Alice Braga, Daveed Diggs and June Squibb
DIRECTED BY: Pete Docter and Kemp Powers
AVAILABLE ON: Disney+
RUNNING TIME: 1 hr., 40 mins.
MPAA RATING: Rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). May contain some material that is unsuitable for young children.
WHY IS THIS MOVIE RATED PG? Thematic elements and some language
Excellent (****), Good (***), Fair (**), Poor (*)