Soul: Jazz music propels Pixar’s story of self-discovery

Pixar/Disney’s excellent “Soul” should delight parents and children alike while raising some serious issues in the process.

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Review by Jonathan W. Hickman

What is your purpose in life? What will it take to find it? Pixar/Disney’s excellent “Soul” should delight parents and children alike while raising some serious issues in the process.

Middle school music teacher Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is about to get his big break. After a former student asks him to audition with famed jazz musician Dorothea Williams’ band, Joe is invited to play with them at the famed Half Note Club. But when he accidentally falls into an open manhole, Joe’s soul is taken to the Great Before, a place where new souls acquire their personalities before coming to Earth.

Determined to return to his body, Joe teams up with a wayward soul named 22 (voiced by Tina Fey). It’s up to Joe to convince 22 of the virtues of human experience before Joe’s body dies. But that plan is hijacked when 22 finds himself inhabiting Joe, while Joe is trapped in a comforting emotional support chat in the hospital. The race is on to restore Joe and give 22 a new perspective.

Pixar uses its fantasy approach to follow the existential journey. As you’d expect from the esteemed and award-winning studio, the animation is polished, colorful and inventive, with a vibrant life to the work that continues the transcendence of the genre. And the moral of the story here, about finding yourself, may be broad and humorous, but it’s undeniably well told. I suspect, like another resonant Pixar classic, “Inside Out,” Oscar-winning “Soul,” will strike a chord with some viewers deeply.

It helps that the voice talent is so deep. The whimsical script makes excellent use of comedic personalities, including British comedian Graham Norton and “The IT Crowd” alum Richard Ayoade. Famous TV mom Phylicia Rashad is adorable, voicing Joe’s worried and resourceful mother. And “Hamilton” star Daveed Diggs appears in a comedic role.

The jazz music is terrific, written by “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” bandleader, Jon Batiste. These original songs set an authentic tone.

In a critical climax at the Half Note Club, Joe, on piano, accompanies Williams (Angela Bassett) on saxophone. Although whimsically animated, this sequence resembles a kind of live concert, transporting the viewer to the club. Co-directors Pete Docter and Kemp Powers are careful to respect jazz traditions, and by consulting musicians like Herbie Hancock and others, the characterizations seem authentic.

Writer and now co-director Kemp Powers’ emergence in 2020 is impressive. Not only does he get writing credit here, Pixar has elevated him to director. This new role makes Powers the first African-American director of a feature film in the studio’s history. Viewers should note that Powers is receiving awards for her script for “One Night in Miami” from director Regina King, which also opens on Christmas Day.

“Soul” is a heavier and more important film than Pixar’s other 2020 offering “Onward.” Both films share a commitment to delivering animated adventures that appeal to audiences young and old. But where “Onward” was younger and embraced obvious comedic elements, “Soul” challenges us to consider its more heartfelt themes. We are reminded that the process of self-discovery always provides a solid foundation for good storytelling.

Watch “Soul” on the Disney+ streaming platform from December 25, 2020.

A RottenTomatoes.com A Tomatometer-approved critic, Jonathan W. Hickman is also an entertainment lawyer, college professor, novelist, and filmmaker. He is a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle, the Southeastern Film Critics Association and the Georgia Film Critics Association. For more information on Jonathan, visit: FilmProductionLaw.com Where DailyFilmFix.com

Ada J. Kenney