SOUL movie poster | ©2020 Disney/Pixar

SOUL movie poster | ©2020 Disney/Pixar

Rating: PG
Stars (voices): Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Angela Bassett, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Wes Studi, Fort une Feirnster, Zenobia Shroff
Writers: Pete Docter & Mike Jones & Kemp Powers
Director: Pete Docter
Co-Director: Kemp Powers
Distributor: Disney
Release Date: December 25, 2020

SOUL has been nominated for two Golden Globe Awards, including Best Animated Motion Picture and Best Score (by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, with jazz compositions and arrangements by Jon Batiste), and will no doubt get some Oscar nods as well.

The title of SOUL comes from both the spirit of jazz music, dear to the heart of our hero, Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx), and the spirit that animates life. The film starts out frisky, and is warmly and philosophical, but there’s something oddly safe about it.

Joe is a middle-aged middle school band teacher in New York City, who lives for those rare times when he can play club gigs. When he auditions for a spot in the ensemble of noted jazz musician Dorothea Williams (voiced by Angela Bassett), Joe has his dream in sight. Then he gets so excited that he doesn’t watch where he’s going and steps into an open manhole.

Joe finds himself as an astral projection version of himself, on a moving walkway with other souls to the Great Beyond. Absolutely refusing to die with his life’s goal in reach, Joe careens off the walkway and finds himself in the Great Before, where new souls get personalities before they’re sent to Earth to be born.

Here, Joe encounters 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), who is as determined never to go to Earth as Joe is to get back there. This is the setup for the rest of SOUL.

The movie from Pixar and Disney is charmingly made. The characters are appealing in their designs, and the look of the administrators in the Great Before is imaginative. There is a deliberate contrast between the hyper-realistic details of elements like concrete sidewalks and wooden piano sidings and the 3D animation style of people, souls, and a cat who plays a large role in the proceedings. The juxtaposition helps illustrate the notion that the physical world and the spiritual world both have their different joys.

Foxx is ever-relatable as Joe, and Fey is amusing as the precocious child-like 22. Bassett has star power as Dorothea. Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Wes Studi, Fortune Feirnster, and Zenobia Shroff all sound patient and reassuring as gentle authority figures.

SOUL has a perfectly good message. Still, once director Pete Docter and co-director Kemp Powers, who both wrote the script with Mike Jones, lead us through how things work, they fall back on convention. It’s not too hard to figure out what will happen, and some of the adventures feel like riffs on other Disney properties. It’s pleasant and enjoyable, but by the end, we don’t feel like we’ve had an altogether new experience.

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