Pixar’s SOUL is as slyly unpredictable as it is playfully brilliant. Nothing less than a deconstruction of what life means, it is both raucous and Zen as it tells the story of a jazz musician who is not ready for the Great Beyond, thereby becoming a perfect koan, and possibly the best movie of the decade.
The musician is Joe (voiced with resonance of several varieties by Jamie Foxx), a jazzman to the marrow of his bones making ends meet as a middle-school band teacher. On the most momentous day of his life, he is offered both a full-time teaching job, and the security it represents, and a chance to join the quartet led by his idol, Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). It’s an either-or situation, but Joe won’t have the chance to make a choice, one that will probably disappoint his mother (Phylicia Rashad), a tailor who would like to see her only child settled. In his excitement at nailing his audition with Dorothea, he misses his footing on a busy New York street and finds himself on an escalator to that ci-mentioned Beyond. Unlike his fellow travelers, he is not ready to go into the light, but making a break lands him in the Great Before. There he is tasked with mentoring 22 (Tina Fey), a soul that has exasperated centuries of mentors, while he plots how to cheat death and get a second chance.
The afterlife is an orderly place, peopled with counselors that are Picasso line drawings come to sspringy life, and all named Jerry. It’s a courtesy they extend to help the painfully limited human minds they shepherd. As 22 explains, it’s all a theoretical construct. As for 22, this petulant soul prefers to drift through existence in the familiarity of the Great Before rather than find the spark that each soul much have before they can be sent along to a life on earth. Joe’s job is to find that spark, and he soon learns why even Mother Teresa lost her patience. Instead, he and 22 come up with a plan that will allow Joe to return to earth courtesy of Moonwind (Graham Norton), a Mystic Without Borders, who can visit this plane of existence to rescue the dark, tentacled lost souls when he’s in the right meditative zone. All it will take is a thin place is the astral plane. They find it, but further complications arise, with 22 accompanying Joe back to his body, and accidentally taking up residence in it.
There is a pervasive impudence in SOUL as it ponder weighty concepts.. Moonwind captains a ship with tie-dye sails that blasts out classic Dylan. Pizza becomes a spiritual experience that unites the sacred and the profane. Orwell’s musings on public education frame a dialogue in which one of Joe’s students rediscovers her own spark for music. Yet, this is at heart a sweet, even tender story that is unabashedly sentimental and intellectually sophisticated, even if the other-worldly accountant, Terry (Rachel House), uses an unsophisticed set of abacuses and filing cabinets to keep track of souls.
The humor is sharp, but never edgy, with some silliness thrown in for good measure. The visuals are equally dazzling. When Joe goes into the zone as he plays the piano, the externalization of his mental state is suitably astral. But it’s not just the big moments, the animators have imbued an emotional power to even the smallest ones, allowing us to experience the paradigm shift of perceptions Joe undergoes as he watches him body move through the world powered by a soul for which it is all overwhelming in its newnesss.
SOUL doesn’t go for the obvious ending, but in keeping with everything that has come before, it gifts us with one that is perfect. Kids may not grasp the deeper philosophical musings but they, along with the grown-ups, can’t help but be enchanted by a film that is so joyously life affirming, even at its silliest.