Pete Docter is the one Pixar writer/director whose movies cannot be summarized in a sentence. Monsters, Inc., Up and especially Inside Out don’t boil down to just a few words; rather, they layer themes, story and adorable details into a rich, delicious confection in which every offbeat element balances and enhances every other. His latest, Soul, is no exception. The main character is Black jazz pianist Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx), who’s just about to get his big break as a performer after decades of teaching school to make ends meet. Then he steps into an open manhole, and his real journey begins.
Docter also likes to pair his stuck-in-a-rut protagonists with energetic opposites — e.g., monster Sully and toddler Boo; Up‘s elderly Carl and scout Russell. Thus, the disembodied but still frustrated Joe meets 22 (Tina Fey), a frisky, eternally young soul who’s avoided being born for centuries. Their adventures are both metaphysical and slapstick, thought-provoking and laugh-inducing in equal measure.
Any more description than that would ruin the wondrous discoveries that await, and there’s plenty to entertain viewers of all ages. Kids will identify with 22’s mischief as well as a long gag involving a sentient cat. Adults will find pulsing emotion and smart, open-ended considerations of mortality, destiny and artistic transfiguration. Mostly, though, Soul is just great storytelling — kinetic, unpredictable. involving and ultimately satisfying.
As if that weren’t enough, the film has some of Pixar’s most ambitious and eye-popping art direction and animation. As Joe and 22 travel through real and spiritual realms, the film draws on countless visual styles — sometimes several at once — in a jaw-dropping display of creative ambition and perfect control.
Just as its title packs a lot into four letters — music, faith, eternity, race, personality — the movie can be unpacked on so many levels that repeat viewings will be mandatory and post-screening discussions lively. The Docter is in — and he’s far out.
Available to stream starting Dec. 25 via Disney+.