For all its brightly colored, brilliant animation and generationally popular, joy-inducing fare, Pixar has never shied away from taking some metaphysical deep dives, from “Inside Out” and its depictions of the emotions inside a little girl’s mind to the skeletal deceased characters in “Coco” to last year’s bizarro “Onward,” with two brothers casting a spell that resurrects their very much dead father — but only from the waist down.
Heavy stuff for the little ones to digest.
Now comes the between-worlds comedy/drama “Soul,” arguably the most spiritually ambitious film in Pixar history — and also one of the very best movies in the studio’s legendary and ever-growing library. Here is a strikingly beautiful, bold, funny, heart-tugging otherworldly journey almost dizzying in its multi-leveled complexity, and yet containing the simplest and most enduring Capra-esque messages about how we don’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone, and how we should embrace every waking moment because it can all vanish in the blink of an eye.
This is also an historic release, as it’s the first Pixar film with a Black lead and predominantly Black characters. In an animated world once dominated by white characters, Pixar has made great strides to be more inclusive in recent years.
Directed by Pixar stalwart Pete Docter (“Monsters, Inc.,” “Up,” “Inside Out”) and co-directed by Kemp Powers (writer of the upcoming gem “One Night in Miami”), “Soul” opens in a stunningly rendered, greatly detailed version of New York City, where the amiable but underachieving middle school band teacher and aspiring jazz pianist Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is going through the motions and living his not-best life when he catches a big break: a chance to play with iconic jazz diva Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Bursting with enthusiasm and paying no attention to the world in front of him, Joe narrowly avoids one catastrophe after another as he walks the streets — but his luck runs out when he falls into a manhole and finds himself lining up with other souls on a walkway to the Great Beyond (gleaming white light and all), his time on Earth presumably over.
Joe’s having none of it. Things were just starting to click for him! He makes a run for it and falls off the walkway and into The Great Before, an in-between world where Mentors, i.e., deceased former inhabitants of Earth, help nascent souls discover their “spark” — the thing that will interest them the most, that will make them love and appreciate the gift of life, when they’re born. Joe becomes an accidental Mentor and is assigned to “22,” a smart but irritatingly unambitious and timid soul who has frustrated some of the greatest of Mentors through the centuries, including Lincoln, Gandhi and even Mother Teresa (“I made her cry!”) as they’ve failed to help her find her spark.
What follows next feels a little like a hybrid of the Albert Brooks film “Defending Your Life” with a body-switching comedy with elements of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Carol,” as Joe and 22 eventually find their way back to Earth and Joe begins to see his life from a different perspective. He was so singlemindedly focused on his music career that he didn’t spend enough time working with his students, connecting with his practical-minded mother (Phylicia Rashad), listening to his friends. There’s a beautifully rendered sequence in a barbershop where for the first time, Joe really and truly listens to his friend Dez (Donnell Rawlings), who had to give up on his planned career when his daughter got sick but has never, not once, regretted becoming a barber. There’s a difference between finding your spark and getting your dream job.
Music wallpapers every frame of “Soul,” with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross sure to be nominated for another Oscar for their jazz-infused score. And the visuals are somehow instantly recognizable as pure Pixar, and yet unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. The worlds of the Great Before and the Great Beyond are magical and mystical and sometimes a little scary in a “Wizard of Oz” kind of way. We meet all manner of incredible beings, from the cute little bubble-shaped souls in training to a trio of elders (voiced by Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade and Wes Studi), who look like moving cubist line drawings, to the spiritual, New Age-y Moonwind (Graham Norton), who takes on the form of one of those storefront sign twirlers when he’s on Earth.
But as magical as these otherworldly realms can be, “Soul” also reminds us of the small things about being human that make up our personal memory albums. Playing piano with your father, marveling at fireworks while wearing your favorite team’s jersey, taking that first bite of a hot slice of pizza or a warm bagel, marveling at the changing colors of the leaves on the trees that co-exist with the skyscrapers in the big city. There’s the Great Before and the Great Beyond — but there’s also Heaven on Earth.