Pixar's 'Soul' brings much-needed light to 2020

Moira Macdonald
The Seattle Times (TNS)
Joe Gardner, voiced by  Jamie Foxx, in a scene from the animated film "Soul." The movie premieres Friday on Disney+.

We've been waiting a long time for "Soul," but maybe this is when we most need it. The latest Pixar movie, directed by Pete Docter ("Inside Out," "Up") and co-directed by Kemp Powers, was originally supposed to be in theaters last summer, but the coronavirus pandemic moved it to a Christmas release; it's now making its bow for home viewing only, through Disney+. A holiday gift, it's bringing some much-needed light to these dark days.

Like Docter's glorious "Inside Out," "Soul" is an animated movie interested in big issues: Where do our personalities come from? What makes our lives worth living? What makes each of us unique? It tackles these questions through central character Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a Manhattan jazz pianist who teaches middle school band (just wait until you hear the trademark Disney music "When You Wish Upon a Star" played by this group) and dreams of a gig that'll take him to the big time. In the early moments of the movie, it happens — a revered jazz saxophonist (Angela Bassett) asks him to play with her group — but Joe's euphoria doesn't last long. After a funny chain of events in which he unknowingly dodges several disasters (including a sidewalk full of banana peels), he falls down a manhole and dies.

This doesn't sound very promising, but don't worry — this is Pixar. Off we go, bypassing the Great Beyond for the Great Before, where souls are assembled before making their way to earth. Joe meets Soul 22 (Tina Fey), a brash misfit who doesn't want to be assigned to a human, and with the help of a group called Mystics Without Borders, the two are hurled back to New York, but not quite according to plan. I'll let you discover the rest of the plot, but just know that there's a cat involved, and that I giggled, a lot. (And wished I could have been watching it in a room full of giggling people, but we'll put that miracle off for a little while.)

Joe Gardner, voiced by  Jamie Foxx, left, and Dorothea Williams, voiced by Angela Bassett, in a scene from the animated film "Soul." The movie premieres Friday on Disney+.

"Soul" is very high-concept (as with "Inside Out," it might work better for adults than children) and doesn't always entirely make sense. But that didn't matter: I was charmed from the opening scenes, intoxicated by the music (the sparkling jazz was produced by Jon Batiste, whose hands were the model for Joe's) and the artistry. Though the Great Before seems rather plain, the New York scenes more than make up for it: the busyness of the city, the detail of the characters (nice to see, in a Pixar movie, such an array of skin tones and hair texture), the sun-warmed rust of the fall leaves, the skittery movement of that cat, the blue lights of the jazz club.

And Docter, the man responsible for the "Up" sequence that left so many of us weeping, knows how to touch the heart. Here, it's in Joe (and 22) realizing what matters in life: the perfect sunshine of an autumn afternoon, fireworks, eating pie in a warm diner while snow falls outside, dipping your toes in the ocean, making music with those you love. Does all this hit harder during a pandemic? Absolutely. Did it nonetheless leave me happier and inspired? Oh yes. Play it again, "Soul."


3.5 stars

With the voices of Jamie Foxx, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Angela Bassett, Daveed Diggs. Directed by Pete Docter and co-directed by Kemp Powers, from a screenplay by Docter, Mike Jones and Powers. 100 minutes. Rated PG for thematic elements and some language. Streaming on Disney Dec. 25.