Did Pixar go on a psychedelic retreat?
Running time: 100 minutes. Rated PG (thematic elements and some language.) On Disney+ Dec. 25.
The studio’s early features were silly movies about plastic cowboys (“Toy Story”) and insects (“A Bug’s Life”), and now, like a grad student with a bong, skew toward metaphysical explorations of human emotions (“Inside Out”) and the afterlife (“Coco”).
Their lovable latest, “Soul,” tackles our personalities.
And, maaaaan, have they mastered the formula to sell their far-out films: Take complex psychological concepts and let adorable animated blobs simplify them. No one has ever raged against cute-splaining. You gotta be evil not to like these characters.
Our sweet little guides this time around are pale-blue souls, who occupy the so-called Great Before, a training camp for babies-to-be. Your kids will want a stuffed version.
Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a New York music teacher, first meets them after he falls into a ditch in the street and floats up to heaven, or the Great Beyond. Not ready to die, he hops off the escalator and lands instead with the tiny future humans.
But Joe is desperate to get back to NYC ASAP because the day he fell, the musician was set to finally make his big break playing piano in a Greenwich Village basement jazz club. For years, Joe had been a talented — but unsatisfied — part-time middle-school band teacher and felt his life lacked purpose. Tonight is his one shot.
How can he game the system and reclaim his body? By mentoring a soul, an unmotivated slacker named 22 (Tina Fey), and snatching her Earth pass once she finds her “spark.”
Not so fast. They screw up that plan, and a multi-species “Freaky Friday” commences in Manhattan.
Director Pete Docter (with co-director Kemp Powers) returns for the first time since 2015’s “Inside Out,” a film I found rather smug and annoying. His “Soul,” on the other hand, is smart without being condescending or self-important, and Fey’s performance is spirited, funny and doesn’t OD on Red Bull.
The script — by Docter, Powers and Mike Jones — is a parade of quirk. There’s none of the double entendre that can grow so tiresome in animated movies, but plenty of lightning-fast jokes about Carl Jung and Mother Teresa.
Then there’s the counselors of the Great Before, Picasso-like line drawings who are mostly named Jerry. The best of them is the desert-dry British comic Richard Ayoade. Another crazy counselor named Terry (Rachel House) obsessively tracks all the souls with an abacus.
As a mentor, Joe learns, his job is to help 22 find her spark, or a reason for living. All other aspects of a soul’s personality are predetermined. “I’m an agreeable skeptic who’s cautious yet flamboyant!,” says one. Another goes: “I’m a manipulative megalomaniac who’s intensely opportunistic!”
I sound like a broken AirPod praising Pixar’s animation over and over again, but the studio keeps outdoing itself. In “Soul,” downtown New York in the fall is meticulously re-created. Joe plays at a club called the Half Note (the real one is gone), and its red awning and green front is a dead ringer for the Village Vanguard. And there’s a chase through the West Fourth Street train station.
But “Soul” amounts to more than technical wizardry and intelligent dialogue. Why artists keep pounding the pavement despite never finding commercial success is a meaty topic. So is a reluctant teacher coming to realize that encouraging talent is his natural gift — one that few people have. Many adults will surely contemplate their own lives — and choices — as they watch from the couch.
And, for the littlest viewers, there are fun, happy blobs.
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