Middle-school band teacher Joe Gardner (voice of Jamie Foxx) has both the best and worst day of his life when his former student Curley (voice of Questlove) gets him an audition to play jazz piano with legendary saxophonist Dorothea Williams (voice of Angela Bassett) at the Half Note. Dorothea gives him the gig, but moments later he falls into a manhole, ending up at the Great Before where he will have to mentor the recalcitrant 22 (voice of Tina Fey) in finding a reason to live and return to earth in “Soul.”
Laura's Review: B
The double entendre in the title Disney/Pixar’s latest can be apportioned to its writer/director duo, “Inside Out’s” Pete Docter and “One Night in Miami” writer Kemp Powers (making his directorial debut). This is a film in two parts and while the earthbound, jazz fueled pieces soar, the Great Before is another in a series of candy-colored representation of those intangible things which make us human (see “Inside Out,” “Over the Moon”) featuring ideas recycled from Docter’s prior work and the likes of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The animation here too, frankly, feels recycled, Joe and 22 represented as blobby blue figures, their various Counselors (voices of Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade and Wes Studi among others), all named Jerry, two dimensional Picassoesque line drawings. Returning to Earth not only takes us back to Queens and the world of jazz, but introduces a buddy swap comedy featuring therapy cat Mr. Mittens, which, while often amusing, is less than original. “Soul” has a lot of offer, but given the high bar we are used to Pixar scaling, it feels like a second tier effort.
When Joe’s given word that his teaching job is about to become full time, he’s depressed considering the downgrade of his dreams. Mom Libba (voice of Phylicia Rashad), whose successful Queens tailor shop was the family’s financial anchor, is thrilled about the stability, concerned about the audition that could find her son following in his musician father’s footsteps.
It is Joe’s conflicted worldview that intrigues 22 in the Great Before, the little soul who’s been mentored by great men of history more interested in someone who was still searching, and it should be no surprise that Joe will discover he had more to live for in his old life than he’d appreciated.
There’s a lot of world building going on here with ‘The Seminar of You,’ ‘Personality Pavilions’ and a ‘lost soul’ named Moonwind (voice of Graham Norton) who rescues others sailing in The Astral Plane. But it is in its more realistic locales – the Half Note, Joe’s barbershop, a hospital and the streets of Queens – that “Soul” really sings. The animation of Joe’s hands dancing across the keyboard are astounding (based on the playing of Jon Batiste), Dorothea’s regal rendering unique, the quality of light in the below street level Half Note spot on. There is a musical number here that justifies the entire movie’s existence. The music, is, of course integral, Batiste providing the original jazz while Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score reflects two worlds with a similar beat, the jazz inflected pieces inspired by NYC street life more notable. In keeping with the overall split personality of this work, Foxx’s vocal performance is lively, warm and engaging while Fey’s never seems right for her character.
“Soul’s” essential truth is that there is magic to be found in the Everyday, and, somewhat ironically given the effort afforded its fantastical elements, it is in the Everyday that it excels.
"Soul" will premiere on Disney+ on 12/25/2020.