Everybody clap your hands. Soul, the feature film from Disney/Pixar, rolls credits with a new version of the Curtis Mayfield classic, “It’s All Right,” one of the most joyous songs ever laid down on wax. Ending a movie on an up note like that can sometimes be a cheap trick to imbue feelings into a work of art—feelings, not emotions. But in Soul, it feels right at home.

Soul might be Pixar’s most musical movie, harkening back to Disney’s Fantasia, which set images to some of the greatest works of composition this side of the 18th century. At first blush, Fantasia was Walt Disney’s noble folly: an attempt to elevate animation, and cinema itself, from the junk drawer to the mantel of fine art. But Fantasia couldn’t crack it; released in 1940, a war was on, and the country was coming out of a long depression. Hoity-toity tone poems set to abstract drawings weren’t putting asses in the seats. The audience wanted a story they could latch on to, characters they could identify with and emotional empathy yielding that all-important catharsis.

And yet, Fantasia persisted. Like all Disney movies, Fantasia was rolled out in theaters every seven years or so and has become a staple attraction for orchestras who perform live alongside the projection film. For many audience members, these performances are their first trip to the symphony, and Fantasia is their first exposure to classical music. The same might be said for youngsters watching Soul. This could be their first exposure to jazz, the intent behind the music and the joy elicited. If not, then there’s still a chance that Soul could be their first experience with visualizing the afterlife.

Joe in the zone. All images courtesy Disney/Pixar.

Just as the title Soul does double duty, the story here takes place in a double realm. On Earth, New York City to be precise, jazz pianist/middle school music teacher Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) accidentally dies while en route to the break he’s waited for his whole life. One minute he’s walking, talking, and not looking where he’s going; the next minute, Joe’s an amorphous blue blob on a stairway to heaven. But Joe’s not ready for the Great Beyond just yet, so he finds a way off the celestial people-mover and plops into the Great Before—where souls are prepped by abstract beings called “Jerrys” before they head down to Earth to unite with their bodies (“meat sacks” as the Jerrys call them).

These moments resemble Fantasia, as well as the superlative A Matter of Life and Death (if you haven’t seen this 1946 masterpiece, do it now), the sci-fi standard 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Japanese anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion, the MGM short The Dot and the Line, and on and on. Writers Pete Docter and Kemp Powers (they also direct) and Mike Jones, along with Pixar’s exceptional team of animators and technicians, swing for the fences in these scenes and knock it out of the park—though some viewers might feel that the results don’t look as effortless as the bits back on Earth, which unfold with familiar ease and arrive at a satisfying conclusion.

How Joe gets back to Earth is the matter of the movie, as is the sidekick he’s hitched with: 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), a soul that refuses to be born. Joe and 22 have good chemistry, and both Foxx and Fey give solid vocal performances. There’s a good deal of humor—particularly a therapy cat who unwittingly ends up on the adventure—and animation so lush and beautiful it’ll have you longing for the autumnal streets of NYC. Those scenes shine because the story knows when to stop and observe. Granted, a race against the clock and cosmic forces in play give the movie a frenetic pace, but the heart of Soul lives in the pauses. No doubt a nod to Claude Debussy’s aphorism: “Music is the spaces between the notes.” 

That’s where Soul is most effective. Both in the jazz compositions and arrangements from Jon Batiste and the score—the kind that feels familiar before you know the names behind it—courtesy Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Make sure to watch through the credits to hear their take on Disney’s “When You Wish Upon a Star” cascade over Cinderella’s castle. Batiste also takes a crack at the castle jingle, this one at the front, and with good humor. Their styles harmonize beautifully in Soul. So do the worlds above and the worlds below. It’s got everything, really—even life itself.  

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Soul (2020)
Directed by Peter Docter and Kemp Powers
Written by Pete Docter, Mike Jones, Kemp Powers
Produced by Dana Murray
Vocal talents: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Questlove, Angela Bassett
Disney/Pixar, Rated PG, Running time 100 minutes, Opened Dec. 25, 2020 on Disney+.

The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 28, No. 17, “A matter of life and death.”