Pixar's Soul reminds me most of the company's Inside Out. Like that 2015 picture – which I picked as the year's best – it takes a real risk by trying to tackle complex themes in a story that, frankly, is kind of odd. I don't think this one is quite as good as Inside Out. It's pretty close, though, meaning that you should prepare to go on a ride that will put you through a range of emotions.
Jamie Foxx provides the voice of Joe Gardner, a school teacher/pianist who has never been able to fulfill his dream of becoming a professional jazz musician. He finally gets the chance after successfully auditioning for legendary singer Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). On the day of his big debut, though, Joe is distracted and walks right into an open manhole. Realizing that he's expired and is literally on a conveyor belt moving toward the proverbial white light, Joe hops off, landing in the “Great Before” where new souls are created and sent to Earth.
Here, the musician is assigned to mentor a blob named 22 (Tina Fey) who has proven so unable to find her “spark” that she's never been granted the chance to become human. Joe believes that if he can help 22 find her passion, it might be enough to earn him the opportunity to return to his body and resume life. The task proves more difficult than he suspects, especially after the two – long story – swap bodies.
In Inside Out, a lot of time was spent detailing the “rules” of how little Riley's psychology worked. Soul does something similar with the Great Before. The movie creates an entire system to explain the formation of personalities. If there's a basic gist to the story, it's that every human needs one thing they're passionate about in order to perceive satisfaction in life. At the same time, Joe also has to learn that being too devoted to such a passion can come with a cost. Kids will enjoy the trademark Pixar humor and inventive animation; adults, however, will find themselves pondering whether their own sparks have dimmed or are too bright.
Life and death is heady material for a family film. Soul tempers it with the kind of lovably quirky characters their output is known for. For example, 22 is an amusingly discontented figure, incapable of finding joy in anything and seemingly okay with that status. Also looming around the Great Before are a gang of scribble-lined supervisors, all named Jerry. They pop up to offer help or hinderance to Joe. Comedic elements like this generate laughs throughout.
In the center of it all is Joe, a man whose lament at losing his life – and therefore his chance to make his dream come true – infuses Soul with its heart. He represents the aspirations we all have for ourselves, as well as the need to occasionally temper those aspirations for our own good. Ambition is great, the movie says, unless it causes you to wear blinders.
At points, the oddball premise of Soul weighs it down just a touch, pulling you out of the story to note how weird certain factors are. (Inside Out didn't have that problem because we can all relate to fluctuating emotions.) Nevertheless, Pixar has brought us another gorgeously animated, poignant story that transcends what most animated features do. Joe Gardner's journey serves as a reminder that our passions are best when they serve others more than they serve ourselves.
out of four
Soul is rated PG for thematic elements and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.