By Lynn Venhaus
Oh, so clever and profound, “Soul” tackles life’s Big Questions with whimsy and warmth.
An inspiring ode to mentors and finding our ‘spark,’ this original screenplay by director Pete Doctor, co-director Kemp Powers, and Mike Jones is a fresh take on a subject we generally ignore.
Docter, the genius behind Oscar winners “Up” and “Inside Out,” has gone into new territory while the animators have done stunning, next level work we’ve not seen before.
As the first African-American lead Pixar character, Joe (Jamie Foxx) is a middle-school band teacher whose true passion is jazz. So, when he gets a shot at performing with the revered Dorothea Williams Quartet, he thinks fate has finally smiled on him. However, destiny had another crossroads in mind – and he has wound up in the “Great Before.” He is paired with a wisecracking infant soul (Tina Fey), trying to figure her life out. Traveling between realms allows him to discover what it means to have “soul.”
The music score is glorious, with hypnotic other-worldly compositions by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and jazz compositions and arrangements by Jon Batiste.
Batiste, the band director of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert’s house band, Stay Human, did the piano performances for Joe in the film – his unmistakable long lean fingers gliding over the 88 keys with such joy. The man exudes optimism every time he tickles the ivories.
“Soul” is geared towards parents more than children, but lessons can be extracted for older youth.
The small moments of life are celebrated, as are the colorful personalities we meet along the way – trombonist Connie, mystic Moonwind, seamstress Melba, barber Dez, obsessive-compulsive accountant Terry, and all those Counselor Jerrys.
Tina Fey is a delight. While Joe and Soul 22 are on their big-city escapades, which are fast and funny, the ‘no-body’ discovers Earth isn’t boring – although she refers to it as “this hellish planet,” but one whiff of pizza and she’s stuffing herself with New York City street food.
Steve Pilcher’s production design of a teeming New York City is remarkable, as is his ethereal Great Before, a mix of pastels and golden lights.
In much the same way as Thornton Wilder’s prose resonates in “Our Town” — “Oh, Earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you…”, “Soul” will stay with you.
And in true Pixar fashion, one must remain for the credits – and they don’t disappoint. The production crew credits appear in the beads of Terry’s abacuses, and the infant souls play games.
Instead of the production babies’ list, they’ve titled it “Recent You Seminar graduates.’
This trip to the astral plane is “Dedicated to all the mentors in our lives,” and is to be savored.
“Soul” is a fantasy animated feature film directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers. Starring Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Angela Bassett, Phylicia Rashad, Graham Norton and Questlove, the film runs 1 hour and 40 minutes and is rated PG for thematic elements and some language. Lynn’s Grade: A. Now streaming on Disney Plus at no extra charge.
Lynn’s Grade: A
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.