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'Soul' review: Pixar's latest is a little too familiar

Pixar Animation Studios' all-new feature film "Soul" introduces

Pixar Animation Studios' all-new feature film "Soul" introduces Joe Gardner (voice of Jamie Foxx) - a middle-school band teacher who gets the chance of a lifetime to play at the best jazz club in town.  Credit: DisneyPixar

PLOT The spirit of a near-dead jazz musician must find a way to re-enter his body.

CAST Voices of Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Angela Bassett

RATED PG (themes of mortality)


WHERE Disney+ on Dec. 25

BOTTOM LINE Pixar’s latest is a mixed bag with beautiful animation but a recycled storyline.

Meet Joe Gardner, a jazz pianist who teaches middle-school band but dreams of playing professionally. He’s the hero of "Soul," Disney-Pixar’s latest animation, and he has plenty of it. Joe loves jazz so much that when he wakes up in heaven, or something like it, his only thought is how to get back to Earth for his big break, sitting in with a famous band at New York City’s legendary Half Note club. With luck — and the help of an unborn spirit named 22 — Joe might just have a chance.

"Soul" is a frustrating combination of artistry, charm and a Pixar formula that is starting to feel tuckered out. It features the warm voice of Jamie Foxx as Joe — Pixar’s first Black lead character — a color palette that captures the beauty of autumn in New York and an ear-catching score that toggles between the sophisticated jazz of Jon Batiste and the pulsing electronica of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (their first work on an animated film). It also, however, recycles ideas and themes from other Pixar films, notably "Inside/Out," in which characters represent intangibles, and "Coco," about a journey into the afterlife. The result is a movie that feels a little too familiar and struggles to find a clear message worth expressing.

Directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers, who co-wrote with Mike Jones, "Soul" distracts from its convoluted story with some very lovely animation. Joe hasn’t gone to the Great Beyond but the Great Before, a pre-life paradise where blank spirits are given their "spark" — that is, their passion or purpose. To keep us from overanalyzing this idea, the filmmakers hypnotize us with graceful line drawings that represent the ethereal staffers Jerry (Alice Braga) and Terry (Rachel House). As for the unruly Spirit 22 (Tina Fey), she’s basically just a blob — but when she and Joe arrive on Earth, she mistakenly lands inside his body, leading to some amusing routines borrowed from the Steve Martin-Lily Tomlin vehicle "All of Me."

Where is all this leading? Who will learn a lesson, and what is it? This is far from clear. We get the sense that Joe’s devotion to music has isolated him from other people. Then again, Joe’s dream of playing with sax legend Dorothea Williams (a brief but excellent Angela Bassett) clearly shows determination and drive, not megalomania. In the end, the film suffers from life-lesson overload: Chase your dreams, seize the day and smell the roses, but remember that what’s important is right in front of you. It’s enough wisdom to make a kid’s eyes glaze over.

It can feel ungrateful to complain about Pixar, which has given us so many movies to love. The studio might be wise, however, to focus on renewing its spark.

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