Soul  ★★★★

Streaming on Disney+

Pixar may be the single most reliable name in Hollywood. When a new Pixar movie drops—especially a new original story, as opposed to a sequel—you’re all but assured of a good time. Individual performers and directors sometimes earn this kind of goodwill, but it’s rare for a studio. These days, nobody rushes out to see the new Paramount picture or Warner Brothers joint.

“Rushes out” is, of course, not quite the right term this plague-stricken season. Soul, Pixar’s delightful new animated flick, has sidestepped a theater release and is instead being released directly to the Disney+ streaming service. 

Soul tells the story of down-on-his-luck musician Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a talented jazz pianist who never caught his big break. When he finally does, cruel fate intervenes: Joe falls down a manhole and into the Great Beyond.

Killing off your protagonist is a wild way to start an ostensible kids’ movie, but as we soon learn, the filmmakers have some ideas about all that. What follows is a thrilling metaphysical adventure as Joe encounters the Great Beyond, as well as the Great Before, where nascent human souls begin their time on Earth. There, he meets the unformed soul known as Number 22 (Tina Fey), and the two team up for a story of second thoughts and second chances.

Soul has some clever plot twists, so we’ll leave off there, but rest assured that co-directors Pete Docter and Kemp Powers have scripted and delivered a top-shelf family film. Still, it feels weird to call it that, since Soul ultimately deals with the kind of Big Questions that keep adults up at night: Where did we come from? Why are we here? What’s next?

Animation is the perfect format for such investigations, and Soul has the kind of emotional intelligence required to keep the film safe—beneficial, even—for kids. The Powers That Be in this film aren’t scary or judgy. Instead, they’re empathetic and helpful, abstracted out into goofy, kinda-cubist, 2D stick figures. The notional limbo planes are friendly, too, and we’re treated to sights like The Zone, that mystical place where we find ourselves when we’re doing the things we love. Each hypothetical plane is given its own animation style and color strategy, similar to Pixar’s great 2015 installment, Inside Out.

The scenes in New York City are just as accomplished, packed to the edges with loving detail and a million sight gags. The script makes time for little moments and one-off jokes concerning stuff like, oh, chakra points, hedge fund managers, therapy cats, the Knicks, and the proper pronunciation of “gyro.” The jokes are themselves a celebration of life on our weirdo planet.

Soul is also notable for being the first Pixar film to feature a predominantly Black cast. Like so many other Hollywood institutions, Pixar has been slow to diversify. Joe’s deep love of jazz is critical to the tone and approach of this remarkably ambitious story—and the jazz passages in the film’s score set the rhythm and flow for everything else. For transport to cosmic realms, jazz is the only way to go.

If the metaphysics of the script don’t quite add up in the end, well, that’s about right, isn’t it? Apparently, it’s part of the human condition that we’re not allowed to know what’s going on, existentially speaking. Soul takes some humanistic, educated guesses and turns them into A-plus popular entertainment, with jokes. It’s generous and artful. I’m glad I saw it, and I’m glad my kids saw it, too. 

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