Actually living your life is exponentially different from just being alive. All Joe Gardener (Jamie Foxx) has wanted to be since he was a youngster was a jazz musician, falling in love with the genre when he set foot in a performance encouraged by his musician dad. Jazz makes him feel alive, but as it tends to be for most who attempt to make a 100% living off of it, the bills rarely get consistently paid. Joe’s taken a full-time gig as the local music teacher. May not be what he genuinely wants, but hey, it gets him a 401K in the paraphrased words of his mother, Libba (Phylicia Rashad).

Dreams never completely die though, especially when opportunity knocks in the form of filling in as a pianist for the smooth saxophonist, Dorothea (Angela Bassett). His Soul on Cloud 9, he suffers an unfortunate accident that puts him in a sort of stasis. His soul is now in “The Great Before,” where he’s asked to serve as a mentor to a young soul known as “22” (Tina Fey) before she descends into Earth. This journey’s he is about to embark on isn’t designed for a solo performer.

Save for the Toy Story franchise, Pixar has found its magic the strongest when they release original movies. Sure, every now and then the company releases new intellectual property in The Good Dinosaur or Onward that doesn’t quite resonate with the collective, though generally speaking, they’re at their best when they tackle traditional themes with new characters and settings. It was always going to be a lot to expect Soul to reach the same stratosphere as Pixar’s 1st tier but settling in near the top of the 2nd tier is notable in its own right.

A slightly underrated aspect in the affability of an animated film is…the animation itself. Okay, maybe not underrated; however, it is something that impacts the quality of a feature for this genre more so than the average flick found in other genres. Are my eyes going to consistently hurt when viewing? Do things tend to look drab? Do the motions sync up with the sounds? More than any other genre, I have to want to spend two hours immersing myself in a make-believe and pixelated world. For Soul’s co-directors in Pete Docter (Inside Out) and Kemp Powers (first full-length debut), their re-creation of New York City is beautiful.

No, this isn’t a flick that lingers in the interiors of the Grand Central Station or strolls past Yankee Stadium, but, the duo captures the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple. One specific scene resetting the narrative taking place on a jam-packed city block is as anxiety-inducing to watch as it turns out to be for 22. Comparatively speaking, the NYC/Earthbound portion of Soul is more fun to be present with than the ethereal stuff (and thankfully, the bulk of the movie takes place in New York), nevertheless, none of the film is ever dull to look at. Nor is it lacking in the score department; the marriage of Jonathan Batiste with longtime collaborators Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor is sublime.

Soul’s narrative written by Docter and Powers alongside Mike Jones (who?) of what makes us alive, what we’re put on the world to do, and what we stand to lose when our passion(s)—very important to have but not at the expense of marginalizing other avenues of personal development and even people—is heady stuff. Like some of Pixar’s best, one could imagine this movie being more poignant as youngsters become older. Unlike Pixar’s best, Soul does not have quite the same immaculate pacing, particularly in the first third where the specifics of The Great Before are hammered despite little of the movie taking place there. The end crisis and resolution feel a bit rushed and tied up too cleanly as well.

Story plotting is what it is. Consistent energy is present in Soul in some part to the efforts of a strong voice cast. In terms of star power, A-list isn’t in the description, but Questlove, Daveed Diggs, Alice Braga, Graham Norton, Angela Bassett, and Donnell Rawlings, all give life to bit characters. Rashad is at the center of possibly the most moving moment of the feature. All that said, the core of Soul is the tandem of Foxx and Fey, together possessing infectious chemistry. Alone, their characters would push into abrasive territory, yet together, they cover each other’s blind spots and grow in their arcs.

“Be fearless in the pursuit of what sets your soul on fire.” Ironically (in this context), this quote is attributed to Disney stalwart Jennifer Lee, the director behind the Frozen movies. Soul has a lot to say about that quote and the nature of existence. Pixar doesn’t have an immediate classic here, but wayward, it is not.


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