The musical motif that precedes all Disney movies sounds dreadful in "Soul."
Deliberately. It's played, it turns out, by an out-of-tune middle school band, the first detail in an instant animated classic where every moment feels thoughtful, emotional and wildly entertaining.
Pete Docter's and Kemp Powers' movie recalls others — "It's a Wonderful Life," "Heaven Can Wait," Docter's own "Inside Out" — but the story of creativity and self-awareness marks it as its own distinct work of art.
Our hero is an average Joe: Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), teacher of that middle school band. The opening introduces a key theme when a student, lost in her music, holds a note too long and Joe compliments her on her passion. That's a good thing, he tells her. He also feels passionate about performing — he'd rather play piano in a jazz combo than teach — but is that realistic? Is it a good thing?
Those are central questions in "Soul," which has kid appeal but addresses the adultiest themes of any Pixar movie to date. With knowing details such as Joe's perfectly chosen ringtone (Charles Mingus' "II BS"), it should also appeal to jazz lovers, especially if they like Jon Batiste, who wrote and performed Joe's music.
"Soul" risks losing audiences with an early section that devotes a lot of time to metaphysics, after an accident sends Joe into a netherworld dubbed the Great Before, where he meets a creature named 22 (Tina Fey) who he hopes will help him return to the living. To make that happen, he is granted a temporary trip to Earth to help nihilistic 22 understand why it's great to be alive.
The Dali-like world is blobby and ephemeral, and the movie makes Joe into 22's sidekick just when we were warming to him, but that unease is the point. We want to get back to Earth, specifically the warm, homey Greenwich Village where Joe wants to hang, including the Half Note club (a dead ringer for the Blue Note) where a smoky-voiced bandleader (Angela Bassett) gives Joe an audition, potentially making his dream come true if he's alive to fulfill it.
The Great Before scenes are funny — Fey's crack timing makes literally everything better — and their wooziness is effective because as soon as we get back to Earth, "Soul" accomplishes a lot in a very short time. Joe's effort to convince 22 of the magic of everyday life calls back to "It's a Wonderful Life" (which lots of folks may be watching right now), focusing on the tiny moments that make life worth living: good pizza, the unexpected sound of music, a sun ray that illuminates the world just right.
Those scenes also neatly sidestep a potential road bump for "Soul": the idea that only artists experience life to its fullest. "Soul" insists that all of us have passions, including, for instance, a barber who helps Joe on his quest to figure out his purpose. In a scene that is "Soul's" make-you-cry equivalent of the marriage montage in Docter's "Up," Joe's lovely piano solo accompanies a look at 22's greatest hits of life on Earth.
I thought I knew where "Soul" was taking us, but I was wrong. Joe's revelation is too sweetly moving to spoil but I will say that this gem concludes on a complex, satisfying note, one that has both heart and soul.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367
⋆⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rating: PG for dark subject matter.
Streaming: Disney Plus.
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