So, the odds said that “Soul” was more likely to fit into the first group than the second. Yet after watching and thinking about it for a couple of days, I think it fits somewhere in the middle. It’s not a disaster, but it’s not as brilliant as “Inside Out,” the last effort from the same director, Pete Docter (and the only movie I can remember rating a 10 out of 10).
The plot revolves around Joe (Jamie Foxx), a part-time high school band teacher who’s rewarded with a full-time job. He doesn’t seem overjoyed at the offer, but his mood changes later that day when Curley (Questlove), a former student, calls to tell him that famed jazz saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) needs a piano player for that night. If he wants the gig, he should rush to the nightclub to audition for her. He does, and it goes so well that she offers Joe the job on the spot (not surprising, considering the piano solos are provided by Jon Batiste, bandleader on Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show”). As he leaves the club, Joe is in a great mood — right up until he falls into a manhole.
The next thing he knows, he’s on some sort of cosmic escalator moving towards a white light. Not only that, he’s now shaped like a little greenish-blue blob, surrounded by similar-looking creatures, and comes to the realization he’s dead and headed for the great beyond. Joe refuses to accept this new reality, so he runs back down the escalator, where he encounters souls preparing to go begin life on Earth.
I’m not going to get into all the details of how Joe handles this situation. Suffice to say that when he does eventually return to the planet, it’s in the body of a cat, accompanied by a reticent soul named 22 (Tina Fey), who lands in Joe’s old body. This leads to some buddy-comedy hijinx that work only because of the talents and chemistry of Foxx and Fey.
My biggest problem with “Soul” is that, during all the time we’re in that non-terrestrial world of souls, we’re robbed of the fantastic animation Pixar has long been famous for. It’s unbelievable to say about one of the studio’s movies, but you wouldn’t lose a thing if you closed your eyes during those sequences. Moreover, there’s something wrong about the studio making its first movie about a Black protagonist and then spending long stretches portraying him as an ethereal greenish-blue creature.
On the other hand, the scenes in the human world look remarkably good, yet another example of the advancement of Pixar’s technological wizardry. I kept wishing we could see less of the blob world and more of Joe’s fingers as he plays piano, the details of the streets of Brooklyn, and the set decoration of the tailor shop his mother (Phylicia Rashad) runs.
In fact, I would have preferred to see the whole movie focus on Joe’s real life, his relationship with his mother and his mentioned-but-never-seen girlfriend Lisa, and how he handles the not-so-talented young musicians he has to teach. There’s a severely undeveloped subplot involving a wonderful trombone-playing student who’s thinking of quitting. Joe recognizes the look of joy on her face as she plays — the same emotion that goes through him whenever he’s creating at the keyboard — and encourages her to keep at it. That’s a delightful connection that should have been explored further. Okay, it’s a little bit “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” but those moments do a better job of defining who Joe is than his scenes as a cat.
Other character voices in “Soul” are provided by Graham Norton, Daveed Diggs, and Donnell Rawlings. They and their more well-known colleagues all do a fine job considering what they’re given to work with, but in the end it’s not enough to lift “Soul” into that upper echelon of “Pixar” classics.
I give “Soul” a 6 out of 10. It is now streaming on Disney+.
Previously on Harris Online: