Soul ★★★★

Soul, the latest film from Pixar Animation Studios, is nothing if not ambitious. The director is Pete Docter, who made two of the best Pixar offerings of the last several years with Inside Out (2015) and Up (2009). Soul doesn’t quite reach the emotional heights of either of these two films, but it is still exceptionally beautiful and thoughtful.

The movie follows in the Pixar tradition of tackling weighty subject matter (here, it’s the afterlife) in an imaginative and digestible form for children. Joe (Jamie Foxx) is a middle school band teacher who has longed to play jazz professionally – and he gets just that opportunity when an old student asks him to fill in as a pianist for the legendary saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) at New York’s Half Note Club. Giddy at the prospect of finally hitting the big-time, Joe glides along the city street – and, in his carefree celebration, falls into a pothole and dies.

What follows involves one of the more convoluted set-ups of any Pixar film: Joe (now in “soul” form) is on the pathway to the afterlife (or ‘Great Beyond’). Resisting, he jumps off the pathway and stumbles into the ‘Great Before,’ where he’s mistaken as a counselor for young souls who have yet to be born and sent to Earth. He’s handed the case of 22 (Tina Fey), a tempestuous soul without any desire to join the living (her past counselors include Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa and Gandhi – all of whom failed to help her find her “spark,” a necessity before entering the world). Joe convinces 22 to help him jump down into Earth, so that he can re-enter his body and make that evening’s jazz performance. Unfortunately, both Joe and 22 fall down into Earth, and 22 enters Joe’s body – while Joe’s soul enters a cat. Thus begins a race around New York City, in which Joe (in cat form) attempts to teach 22 (in Joe’s body) how to navigate the human world, all the while attempting to get Joe back inside his own body.

What ultimately keeps Soul from being one of the Pixar greats is an uneven mix of abstract imagery (the visualization of the Great Beyond is extraordinary) and considerable screen time devoted to explaining the increasingly convoluted rules of this world. Pixar is famous for tight, economic storytelling, but this is the rare instance where I wish they’d either streamlined the story more or just gone fully abstract, leaving narrative behind altogether. Unlike Inside Out, where every new element to Riley’s mind feels organic, each new rule of the Great Before feels forced, as if the filmmakers are writing themselves out of a hole. An ideal movie is one in which you can’t see the plot mechanics in motion, but in Soul, the emotional beauty of the story gets bogged down by information overload.

I don’t mean to be overly harsh – Pixar is at its best when the studio invests time and energy in original, non-IP stories (while I loved The Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4, it’s hard to argue either film was necessary). Soul is, for the most part, a delightful original. The movie particularly shines when it comes to depicting New York City in all of its bustling energy. The theme of one’s identity or purpose sometimes mistakenly getting wrapped up in a sole profession resonated with me, and the voice work by Foxx and Fey is terrific. Above all, Soul is a moving tribute to jazz, and the film’s genuine affection for the art form more than makes up for its shortcomings.