Looked at broadly, there isn't much difference in the end between Pixar's morality tales and those that have been told to children as long as parents have told stories to convey the significance of ethical boundaries: A character starts out missing some key element in his or her moral system, goes through strife as a result and comes out the other side of that dilemma a changed -- and more moral -- person.
It's a paradigm young children are indoctrinated with almost from birth -- helped immensely by the ubiquity of the journey propagated by Pixar's own parent company, Disney -- such that by the time they are cognizant enough to be enjoying movies with you, even if they don't understand everything else, they'll latch onto that part like the easiest equation on a math quiz.
Savvy, as ever, to their viewers, Pixar doesn't just coddle these instincts and print money for themselves. At their best, they also challenge their younger viewers, by dint of a theme's complexity, their daring to include darker elements and their imaginative, metaphoric storytelling itself.
What can make Pixar's stories so resonant beyond this simple premise remains the company's impressive dedication to detail and friction, and the depth of their protagonist's despair en route to his or her eventual redemption. In Pixar's finest work, they also don't shy away (entirely) from darker concerns, hinting at adult sorts of miseries that reverberate with older viewers.
Co-director Pete Docter is the creative force behind many of Pixar's best titles, having a hand in the "Toy Story" franchise, "WALL-E," "Up," and also directing "Inside Out," a brilliantly moving treatise on the subject of emotional upheaval. "Soul," which he co-wrote and made along with fellow co-director Kemp Powers, is his first film back at the helm since that high-water mark, and he has again dug into the fertile earth of our mortality and come back with a particularly vibrant crop.
We meet Joe (voice of Jamie Foxx), a struggling, middle-aged jazz pianist and middle school band teacher in New York, on what might be the best day of his life: First, the school principal offers him a full-time gig, with benefits and a pension, for what had been his part-time job; vastly more important to him, Curley (voice of Questlove, aka Ahmir-Khalib Thompson), one of his old students, gets him an audition with the legendary sax player Williams (voice of Angela Bassett), and he nails it.
His long-awaited break having arrived, it's clear to Joe that he will have to ignore the pleas of his mother (voice of Phylicia Rashad) to settle for the teaching job and take the Williams gig as far as he can ... right before he accidentally steps into an open manhole cover and plummets to his death.
The next thing he knows, his body now a glowing, blue blob (while retaining his jazzy glasses and fedora), he's on an intergalactic conveyor belt heading off into the white unknown of the cosmos. Aghast at losing the opportunity he has waited his entire life for, Joe races the opposite way, against the tide of other souls off to meet their next destination, until finally in desperation, he manages to rip through the fabric of the cosmos, plunging down to a peculiar, green field-covered planet (described by one character as a "theoretical construct in a hypothetical waystation between life and death"). There, helpful two-dimensional Picasso-like figures, all named Jerry, inexplicably, direct him to something called a "You-minar" -- meant to be a self-involved seminar -- where he gets linked up with a stubbornly wayward soul known as number 22 (voice of Tina Fey), whom he is meant to mentor in order to convince her to take the plunge and go to earth to become a living person.
Through 22, Joe forms a plan to get her ready enough to earn her "Earth badge," then allow her to stay at the waystation as she seems to prefer, and use it to get back to his body in time for his gig that night. Along the way, 22 takes him to the "Sea of Lost Souls," a sad body of temporal water, filled with moaning souls, barely audible underneath a thick covering of what appears to be darkened concrete-like material, fixated on a single idea (the prime example of which is a Wall Street hedge fund manager who keeps saying "Make trades") to the exclusion of all else.
Navigating these treacherous waters in a giant galley (with Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" playing on an endless loop) is a group of oracles, swamis, and mystics, lead by a man named Moodwind (voice of Graham Norton), who somehow bridge the gap between worlds.
Eventually, 22 and Joe both return to Earth, but not as Joe might have planned, and as the pair race across the city, trying to get ready for Joe's big moment, they are pursued by, of all things, the lead soul accountant, Terry (voice of Rachel House), desperate to find Joe so to restore the books back to perfect order, and things get convoluted and messy before finally resolving themselves.
One critic I know maintains the film has no particular audience in mind, but I strongly disagree. It's true the screenplay is dense and movingly specific (you sort of know the kind of film it will be based solely on Joe's preoccupation with jazz, an art form that tends to strike its devotees directly through the heart), and it's also true that the animation can be accurately described as trippy at times (though never scary). But Docter and Powers understand very much what they're doing. They offer youngsters enough physical comedy and silliness (mainly involving a cat named Mr. Mittens) to keep them engaged, while directly toying with the questions of purpose, passion, and lost dreams that will connect with older kids, and most certainly their parents, offering them a glimpse of some of the most difficult questions of our lives.
Despite its somewhat madcap premise, and pace, the film is so delicately quiet at times, you can feel it work like a balm for the soul (it is the only film in my memory whose key element is a single whirligig leaf). After the year we've all had to endure, and the misery and suffering that the entire global population has been plagued with, a quietly echoing film such as this thoughtful meditation on our living purpose, is like a perfectly soothing, candlelit bath on an otherwise beastly cold night.
88 Cast: (voices of) Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Phylicia Rashad, Graham Norton, Daveed Diggs, Angela Bassett, Wes Studi, Ahmir-Khalib Thompson (aka Questlove), June Squibb, Rachel House
Director: Pete Docter, Kemp Powers
Rating: PG, for some language
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Streaming on Disney +.