2020, PG, 100 min. Directed by Pete Docter, Kemp Powers. Voices by Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Angela Bassett, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Questlove, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Daveed Diggs, Wes Studi.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Dec. 25, 2020
The title, with its built-in weightiness ... well, it’s a tall order, one this latest Pixar animated feature falls just short of. The dominant mood here is not so much soulful as spirited, which is still better than most – and a most welcome gift, that, as it launches Christmas Day on Disney+ after COVID-19 derailed plans for a theatrical release. Soul is not the best Pixar has ever produced, nor the worst. Like its hero, Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx), whose misstep into a New York City manhole sends him bouncing from life to afterlife to something like pre-life, Soul is an in-betweener.
Anything Pete Docter did was liable to be a drop-off after 2015’s brilliant Inside Out; certainly, Soul’s clever but frenetic world-building lacks the neighborhood plan neatness of Inside Out’s mindscape. (Docter co-wrote Soul with Kemp Powers and Mike Jones.) After jazz musician and middle school band leader Joe Gardner's fatal date with that manhole, he finds himself on an extraplanetary escalator to the so-called Great Beyond (hat tip Powell and Pressburger’s stairway to heaven). But Joe is not about going gently into the good night. In a scratchy, existential freakout that reminded me of one of Don Hertzfeldt’s stick figure cris de coeurs, Joe flees the Great Beyond and lands instead in the Great Before, a cotton-candy colored departure lounge for brand-new souls readying for their journey to Earth. There, he crosses paths with a cranky old soul numbered 22 (30 Rock’s Fey, also credited with dialogue contributions) who has so far resisted her ascension to corporeal form, and together they forge a tetchy alliance to get Joe back to his body.
That summary covers barely 20 minutes of a busy two hours, which hops between dimensions, emotional shades, and musical scores. (Jon Batiste is behind the jazz compositions, while Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross steal looks from Tangerine Dream’s synth doom vision board for the metaphysical action.) Soul celebrates more than one overdue firsts: In addition to his script work, Powers is the first credited Black co-director in Pixar history, and Joe marks the animation house’s first Black protagonist. That makes it doubly frustrating that Joe spends so much of the film not in his own skin, stuck instead in either his lava lamp-shaped soul form or in an accidental body swap that I imagine appeals more to younger viewers. (Not that they don’t deserve a bone – Soul earns its PG rating with an awful lot of “I don’t want to die” teeth gnashings and a spooky dominion where lost souls wander abjectly.) Still, it’s a treat to see an African American family depicted; a diverse community represented in Earthbound scenes at Joe’s school, a barbershop, a jazz club; and a multicultural roster of talent tapped for the vocal performances. Foxx and Fey have a nicely bickering rapport, but my favorite performance – of the year? – goes to the throaty New Zealander Rachel House (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) playing a cosmic bean counter named Terry. In the absence of transcendence, Terry tickled me into giggles. That’ll do just fine.
Soul is available on Disney+ starting Dec. 25.