The latest film from Pixar, “Soul,” is a witty, warm and music-focused story about a jazzman learning the secrets of how the creative spirit works.
It also confirms director Pete Docter as perhaps the greatest surrealist filmmaker since the Japanese legend Hayao Miyazaki.
Docter has always been the most conceptual of Pixar’s directors, able to ask a simple existential question and turn it into a funny, emotional and vibrant movie. What’s so scary in the closet? “Monsters, Inc.” has the answer. How can we travel without leaving home? With a bunch of balloons, as “Up” showed us. What goes on inside a girl’s mind? “Inside Out” let us all see.
In “Soul,” Docter and his co-writers, Kemp Powers (who also co-directed) and Mike Jones, ask the ultimate question: What makes us, us? The answers, with a nod toward “Heaven Can Wait,” are delightful.
In New York City, Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is a jazz pianist whose talent has never matched his opportunities. He gets by on his day job as a middle school music teacher, never realizing his dreams of a sustained career as a performer. One day, though, he gets his shot, in a chance to accompany the legendary saxophonist Dorothea Williams (voiced by Angela Bassett). He’s so excited about it that he fails to see the open manhole into which he falls.
Next thing Joe knows, he’s a disembodied soul moving slowly toward The Great Beyond. He manages to jump off the moving sidewalk pulling him toward his afterlife, and lands in a place of pre-existence. Here, it’s called The Great Before, though they’re working on a new name: The You Seminar.
It’s in the You Seminar that souls not yet born learn what type of person they’re going to be, and what they will someday do in life. To get assigned to Earth, each soul must find their “spark” — the thing that most inspires them. Joe, while seeking a way back to his own body, ends up mentoring a bratty unformed soul, 22 (voiced by Tina Fey).
Little 22 has already gone through her fair share of mentors — she brags that she made Mother Teresa cry — and doesn’t want to listen to Joe’s opinions about life as a human. In short, 22 sees nothing good about living on Earth, and doesn’t understand why Joe is so eager to get back there.
I can’t say more about what happens next without divulging some massive spoilers. Know this: Like most Pixar movies, there is much to laugh about, some moments to cry over, and some important life (and afterlife) lessons to be learned.
Foxx and Fey are a sweet comic couple, and their banter generates some of the best laughs. They top a varied voice cast that includes Phylicia Rashad as Joe’s practical-minded mom, Richard Ayoade (“The IT Crowd”) as one of the You Seminar counselors, and talk show host Graham Norton as a mystic who lives in both worlds.
On the technical side, the computer-animated realization of an authentic New York is breathtaking in its rich detail. On the other end of the spectrum, the manifestation of the soul world — with its line-drawn counselors overseeing the young souls, like the world’s most patient kindergarten teachers — is Pixar at its most imaginative and engrossing.
For all the imagination of the visuals, what puts “Soul” over the top is the music. The score, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, perfectly counterpoints both the ethereal side of the soul world and the grit of New York street scenes. And Jon Batiste, Stephen Colbert’s band leader, composes the jazz music that Joe loves so dearly to play — and through those joyous compositions, Joe’s love of the music fills us with that rapturous feeling down to our souls.
Pixar’s latest, a funny and touching story of a jazz musician who learns where our souls get their personalities, is full of wonder and imagination.
Where • Streaming on Disney+.
When • Starting Friday, Dec. 25.
Rated • PG for thematic elements and some language.
Running time • 100 minutes.