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Movie review: Disney and Pixar make sure that ‘Soul’ hits the right notes

Ed Symkus
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Joe (voice of Jamie Foxx) knows that he was meant to play jazz.

This new Pixar film keeps two main characters at its fore: An adult human named Joe, and a very, very, very old soul - with a sardonic teenager’s sensibility - named or, actually, numbered 22.

You’ll find all sorts of souls populating “Soul.” There are unborn souls, waiting in Soul World to be transported to human bodies and life on Earth. That’s 22’s situation. There are lost souls who are trying to “find their way home.” And there are untethered souls. Joe is one of those; his body is in a holding pattern, stuck, for the time being, between The Great Beyond and The Great Before.

But the story starts in the real world, in New York City. Joe (Jaimie Foxx) is a middle school music teacher, who knows he has an important and hopefully influential job, but is also frustrated. He’s never stopped dreaming of being a jazz pianist, of using his musical gifts and following his lifelong passion. Out of the blue, the dream is realized. He auditions for and gets a gig with the Dorothea Williams Quartet at the Half-Note jazz club, starting later that night.

Watch out! Here comes some irony. Only a few minutes into the film, he’s in the (magnificently created) busy streets of New York, ecstatic over finally getting his big break, not paying attention to where he’s walking, doesn’t see an open manhole, falls in, and dies.

Well, no, he doesn’t die. But while his broken body is in a hospital bed, his soul shoots up to Soul World, where he’s on a moving sidewalk headed to The Great Beyond. He panics, runs off, and blunders into another area, The Great Before, where he’s mistaken as a former child psychologist, then assigned to mentor unborn soul 22 (Tina Fey) to help her find her spark. That’s the inspiration that will guide her through life when she’s sent to Earth.

This is pretty lofty material from a film studio that generally deals with the importance of family and friendship, and the pursuance of hopes and dreams but, to be fair, has also delved into the subjects of love and loss. “Soul” goes a step further, with its characters wondering about the meaning of life.

Relax, the folks at Pixar know what they’re doing. This is not a morose movie. It’s hopeful and charming and funny and wacky and a little scary (those creepy lost souls!), and it’s filled with heart.

The story sticks with Joe’s dreams, but it also brings in his relationship with 22. He only wants to get his body back and live again; she has no interest in life on Earth and wants to remain in Soul World. That’s where everything goes wrong - for both of them - and where the film’s fun begins, with part of it taking place in Soul World and the rest on Earth.

There’s a “transmission” problem, resulting in 22 experiencing life on Earth for the first time, and being in a human body (Joe’s) for the first time (How does one walk?), and eating for the first time (New York pizza!). Joe’s soul on Earth ends up being in a hospital therapy cat named Mr. Mittens.

Think of the dogs reacting to squirrels in Pixar’s “Up” to ready yourself for the abundant cat antics in “Soul.” Both films were directed and co-written by Pete Docter. Then add in Docter’s wild visual imagination and penchant for sight gags, in this case involving a foot chase through the city, samples of both abstract and psychedelic animation, and cameo appearances by Carl Jung, Mother Teresa, and Abe Lincoln.

Yet the film’s positive messages continue to shine through all of this. Joe’s dream is in danger of slipping away, but 22 is discovering that she may have a purpose on Earth - and in life - after all. That means they must work together to make things happen. Which is when complications set in, and the film turns more dramatic, but keeps its humor and inspiration intact.

It’s terrifically written, directed, acted, edited, animated and lit. Equally important, it has one of the best soundtracks in any Pixar film, with original music and performances by Stephen Colbert bandleader Jon Batiste. And yes, a soundtrack album has been released.

“Soul” is available on Disney+ starting Dec. 25.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“Soul”

Written by Pete Doctor, Kemp Powers, Mike Jones; directed by Pete Doctor and Kemp Powers

With voices of Jaimie Foxx, Tina Fey

Rated PG