The visual details, humanism and weighty themes sent aloft with gossamer lightness that add up to “that Pixar touch” are in abundant supply in “Soul,” an ambitious meditation on creativity, existence and meaning that frequently exemplifies what the animation studio does best. This dazzling, if ultimately frustrating, movie seems to pick up where the far superior “Inside Out” ended, leaving behind the inner workings of young people’s emotional lives for an exploration of metaphysical realms that are fuzzier, more speculative and, to put it bluntly, not nearly as involving.
Admittedly, though, “Soul” gives the audience a fabulous tour guide to its woozy outer reaches. Joe (Jamie Foxx) is a middle-school band teacher trying to coax a melody out of his clangily dissonant ensemble. But Joe harbors a not-so-secret dream of ditching his day job to become a working musician, an aspiration pooh-poohed by his practical-minded mother Libba (Phylicia Rashad). When a former student gives Joe a chance to audition for a famous saxophone player, he jumps at the chance and lands the gig – just before falling through a manhole cover to his untimely demise.
Except, not really. When Joe realizes that he’s headed to the Great Beyond, he makes a U-turn toward the Great Before: the place where, as “Soul” would have it, our personalities are assigned and attached to almost-people before they’re delivered. (Director Pete Docter co-wrote the script with Mike Jones and Kemp Powers.) Through a bureaucratic mix-up, Joe is called upon to be a mentor to Soul 22, a recalcitrant blob of ectoplasm who has no intention of being born and whose previous attempts at being tutored by the likes of Mother Teresa, Muhammad Ali and Carl Jung have met with abject failure.
Voiced with just the right amount of perky snark by Tina Fey, 22 turns out to be a delightful comic foil for Joe who longs to be given a second chance on Earth. The two embark on a wild psychic road trip that entails meeting up with people in the “Zone,” traveling back to Joe’s life to make things right and encountering a land of lost souls, one of whom is briefly threatened with being squished to extinction. “You can’t crush a soul here,” a character explains matter-of-factly. “That’s what life on Earth is for.”
With luck, this and other cynical asides will fly right past the youngest viewers of “Soul,” which also includes some clever inside jokes about hedge fund managers, Pizza Rat and the New York Knicks. Less amusing are the convolutions, contingencies and arcane internal rules that pile up in “Soul,” making it difficult to follow and, increasingly, frustrating to unpack. Part Dante, part Dickens, with dashes of “The Good Place” thrown in for philosophical measure, this is a movie that seems less interested in the scientific grounding that made “Inside Out” so brilliant than in throwing endless amounts of psycho-spiritual noodles against constantly morphing walls to see what might stick.
“Soul’s” overbusy complexity is all the more regrettable considering how terrific it looks and sounds: Like “Toy Story 4,” this film presents a dazzling study in animation art, especially when it comes to color, light, translucence and exquisite detail. From the nicks on Joe’s standup piano to the grime on his middle school’s walls, nothing gets by Docter and his team, whose craftsmanship is clearly at the top of their collective game.
Once Joe visits various netherworlds, the visuals are more schematic and less enticing: Characters take the form of undulating line drawings, and 22, like her fellow would-be beings, is little more than a blob with an adorable overbite. It’s all very … blue, at least until a ship captained by an out-there mystic (Graham Norton) shows up to help Joe find a way back to his old life.
Once back on Earth, Joe is once again surrounded by color, texture and fabulous music composed by Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Jon Batiste, bandleader and music director on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” and writer of the gorgeous jazz numbers Joe performs with saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Foxx and Fey develop jaunty buddy-comedy chemistry as they whiz back and forth between realms and competing realities.
Is music really Joe’s calling, or is it just his passion? Is one equal to the other? Will life ever be worth living to 22? Is pizza enough, or is there a larger purpose? Such are the questions pondered in “Soul,” which arrives at some numbingly complex – and maybe not entirely consistent – answers but generates some fun and genuine beauty along the way.
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