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“Music and life operate by very different rules.” Those words are spoken by Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), the protagonist of Pete Docter’s new animated comedy, “Soul,” and as such they should be received with some skepticism. Joe, a Manhattan middle-school teacher, turns out to know rather more about music than life. Given his particular condition at this point in the story — and here I’ll refrain from spoiling a surprise as weird and wonderful as any in the Pixar canon — he should at least know that rules are made to be broken. Certainly, that’s true in jazz, the music that fuels Joe’s every moment and to some degree shapes this movie’s loose-limbed, one-thing-after-another spirit.
Movie rules are made to be broken too, something the Pixar ethos has demonstrated time and again. Who says toys can’t talk and rodents can’t cook? Who says a family-friendly entertainment can’t be a post-apocalyptic silent comedy or a map of an 11-year-old’s brain? More often than not, of course, Pixar has shattered the boundaries by constructing ever more elaborate ones, guiding us into realms governed by laws as rigorous as they are whimsical. And Docter, who wrote the script with playwright Kemp Powers and Mike Jones, knows those laws as well as anyone. Like an ethereal cousin to his triumphant “Inside Out,” “Soul” is another playful exercise in metaphysical world building, a door-slamming farce staged between the portals of consciousness. It reminds us that ordinary lives can be the stuff of extraordinary adventure.
Joe initially seems as average as his name. A tall, portly bundle of unfulfilled dreams and midlife disappointments, he spends his days trying to inspire his moody, distracted band students while clinging to his own fantasies of stardom. He gets his shot when he tickles the ivories for a famous jazz saxophonist, Dorothea Williams (a terrific Angela Bassett), briefly transporting her and the movie into a state of pure musical bliss. Dorothea hires him to play with her quartet; Joe can’t believe his good fortune. But then in a flash it’s gone, along with everything else, when he takes a fatal tumble and lands somewhere in a dark, formless void.
That void turns out to be “Soul’s” big conceptual and technological coup, a vision of eternity that will soon deepen to reveal hidden doorways and surprising dimensions. It also enables Docter and his team of artists to find new ways to represent something as transcendent, and also as commonplace, as life and death. Like the other souls he encounters on a cosmic escalator to the next world, Joe is represented here as a cute, fuzzy, marshmallow-y abstraction; a few features, including glasses and a fedora, suggest vestiges of his earthly body. So does Foxx’s voice, giving vivid form and feeling to an avatar of the netherworld.
“Soul” is Pixar’s 23rd feature and its first to center on a Black protagonist — a precedent the movie embraces with wit, sensitivity and a lovingly detailed portrait of Joe’s family and community life. (Phylicia Rashad voices his hard-to-please mom; Questlove plays a former student turned drummer who helps him land that coveted gig.) It’s also the first Pixar film to credit a Black codirector and cowriter, Powers, whose words can also be heard in the forthcoming live-action drama “One Night in Miami.” These milestones aside, however, this is hardly the first time Pixar has explored the often-bewildering bureaucratic complications of the afterlife, which it sends up with customary ingenuity and matter-of-fact razzle-dazzle.
In contrast with the darkly vibrant “Coco,” with its roots in Mexican cultural tradition, “Soul’s” vision of the Great Beyond is pure cool-toned kiddie futurism. It’s a bit like Tron meets the Teletubbies, a sly wink from the tech wizards at Pixar Animation Studios to their nearby Silicon Valley counterparts. You can see the homage in the Great Beyond’s elegance of form and function, its soothing, techno-utopian pastel shades. You can hear it too, in the pulsing electronica of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score, which works in sly counterpoint to Jonathan Batiste’s inspired jazz compositions.
All in all, it seems like a pleasant enough place to spend eternity. But Joe, devastated at being cheated out of his big break, has no intention of going gentle into that good night. (Dylan Thomas isn’t referenced here, though Jesuit writer Anthony de Mello is.) Exploiting a loophole in the matrix, Joe is transported to the Great Before, where new souls are assigned personalities and interests before they are born. In a development that may raise hackles in the nature-versus-nurture debate, he passes himself off as a mentor, volunteering to help other souls find their “spark,” as part of a scheme to find his way back into corporeal form. He doesn’t expect to be paired with the most stubbornly Earth-resistant soul in history, known simply as 22 (a wisecracking Tina Fey), who is as desperate to avoid Earth as Joe is to return to it.
And so, with nods to classic comedies of spiritual transmigration like “All of Me” and “Heaven Can Wait,” “Soul” becomes an out-of-body buddy movie, an odd-couple jaunt that slips freely between this world and the next. There are picaresque detours, slapstick-heavy set pieces and a thick veneer of corporate-culture satire, mostly aimed at the Great Beyond’s overseers, each one a marvel of translucent forms and squiggly lines. (They’re voiced by Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Wes Studi, Fortune Feimster, Zenobia Shroff and an especially amusing Rachel House.) Back in Manhattan, there’s also a sign-twirling mystic (Graham Norton) who’s Zen enough to cruise in and out of the astral plane, and a friendly cat that similarly winds up transcending the here and meow.
It’s all diverting enough to watch, if also a little familiar. More than a few Pixar devotees — an admittedly large and varied swath of the movie-loving public — may feel both comforted and disappointed by the way “Soul” retreats from its early flights of otherworldly fancy and settles into a cozy narrative groove. Lovably mismatched duos have long been fixtures of the Pixarverse, going all the way back to Buzz and Woody; Docter himself has given us Carl and Russell, not to mention Joy and Sadness. There are few more reliable ways of getting a protagonist to open up than to saddle them with an irrepressible, slightly obnoxious sidekick from whom they could ultimately learn a thing or two. The formula works for a reason.
But it doesn’t entirely work in “Soul,” maybe because in trying to squeeze the mysteries of the infinite into such an accessible, insistently crowd-pleasing format, the movie winds up inadvertently exposing its own seams. 22 is an unformed, underdeveloped personality practically by definition, and Fey’s rat-a-tat comic stylings, entertaining as they are, sound as though they belong more to her than to the character. Joe and 22 spend a lot of time — and toss off quite a few blink-and-you-miss-’em gags — trying to figure out her purpose in life. But within the self-help narrative context of “Soul,” her function is a bit too obviously circumscribed.
Joe, of course, is more than convinced of his own purpose: Jazz is his passion and his lifeblood. And if “Soul” ultimately feels a bit too carefully manicured to achieve the wild, improvisatory sublimity it’s aiming for, its respect for Joe’s commitment is undeniable. It’s there in the movie’s rigorous attention to the musical details, in the exquisite precision with which Joe’s fingers glide across the keyboard, their movements synching up with the notes we hear. The best, most nuanced aspect of “Soul” is the way it affirms Joe’s calling while also placing it gently in check and providing a necessary dose of perspective.
I was reminded of a line from Kurt Vonnegut, whose work this movie sometimes recalls in its cheeky approach to metaphysics: “I am a human being, not a human doing.” Joe is more than the sum of his ambitions, and life, the movie reminds us, is more than a rapt nightclub crowd. It can also be a crisp autumn day, a slice of pepperoni pizza, a breeze wafting up from a subway grate, a moment of kindness spared for a worried friend. It’s a barbershop overflowing with warm vibes and good-natured insults, presided over by a guy (Donnell Rawlings) who not only cuts your hair but also answers your need for connection and community.
It’s New York, in other words, a place that ultimately, and with subtle determination, eclipses the Great Beyond as “Soul’s” most richly imagined landscape. The city, teeming with life, color and photorealistic details, looks more idyllic and inviting now than ever, even and maybe especially for those of us who don’t call it home. As much as all the incessant body swapping and dimension hopping, this vision of New York may be what ultimately marks this story as a fantasy — an escapist evocation of a happier, more carefree moment. But the lingering lesson of “Soul,” a lovely, imperfect movie about life’s lovely imperfections, is that every moment is worth living to the fullest, this one very much included.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.