Every new Pixar movie offers pop-culture publications the chance to update their rankings of the Pixar canon. These lists are probably fun to make but can be boring to read, because almost everyone agrees that the “Cars” sequels bring up the rear, while the very top shelf is home to “WALL-E,” “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille” and the first 10 minutes of “Up.”
Those films were released between 2004 and 2009, Pixar’s golden age, after the animation house had expanded the vocabulary of animated storytelling with early hits such as “Toy Story,” “Monsters Inc.” and “Finding Nemo” but before it relied too heavily on bankable sequels to those properties and others.
The best movies from its middle period are not only kinetic pieces of blockbuster entertainment but enduring works of art. So while it is more or less accepted that few Pixar films in the past decade have met that gold standard — give or take “Inside Out” or “Coco” — that’s less a criticism than an acknowledgement that such a level of groundbreaking excellence is virtually impossible to sustain.
“Soul,” the new Pixar film that appeared Christmas Day on the Disney+ streaming service, in lieu of a holiday theatrical release that would have happened in a normal year, is solid, mid-tier work that’s unlikely to reshuffle anyone’s top-five lists of Pixar’s filmography.
It’s standard late-period Pixar with one major caveat: “Soul” is the studio’s first film with a Black protagonist. Joe, voiced by Jamie Foxx, is an underachieving, middle-aged New York jazz musician who makes a living teaching middle-school band. One day, Joe gets an overdue big break and promptly falls down a manhole and meets a Manhattan-specific kind of end.
Sort of, anyway. Joe, or at least his ghostly essence, ends up in a trippy quasi-purgatory. Here, souls are sent in one of two directions: to a life on Earth or, in Joe’s case, onto a giant conveyor belt that leads to the blinding white void of the Great Beyond.
He escapes into a space called the Great Before, where souls collect personality traits they’ll carry through life, guided by a bureaucracy of celestial beings that resemble figures from cubist paintings. There, he meets 22 (voice of Tina Fey), a wayward soul determined to avoid taking human form, who joins him on a journey into and out of existence.
Pixar has always used the language of kids’ movies to explore big ideas, but even by the studio’s standards, this one’s a ways out there. I’m curious how parents might try to explain the before/afterlife metaphysics “Soul” posits in its spirit realm, or Joe’s midlife crisis in the human one.
From there, “Soul” becomes a philosophical adventure in which two beings navigate the relationship between consciousness and biological life.
It’s also a body-swap slapstick buddy comedy. And it’s a love letter to New York City, complete with jokes about Pizza Rat and the Knicks, that feels like a timely salute to the society so many of us are eager to rejoin.
It’s also a tribute to the transcendent power of musical creativity, specifically within Black jazz culture. We’re not done yet; it’s also a psychedelic journey with an appropriately spacey score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. AND it’s a boilerplate endorsement of passion and the “spark” that gives a life its purpose.
Some of these concepts are executed more effectively than others, but since there is so much going on within its relatively brief run time, “Soul” is unable to weave all of its threads into the grand existential tapestry to which it aspires. The movie’s spiritual dimension feels underbaked, the characters besides Joe (including 22) barely register, and we don’t spend enough time in Joe’s living world for his emotional arc to land.
But there are worse creative missteps than trying to explore too many big ideas at once. And feels a little too easy to pass judgement from the apocalyptic decadence of a “WALL-E”-like future in which all entertainment — even a B-plus Pixar effort such as “Soul” — is beamed directly into our eyeballs and hearts.