Review: Pixar's 'Soul' misses target but gets points for aiming high

Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey voice characters in animated exploration of human experience

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic
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In recent years, Pixar's offerings have gotten decidedly more complicated than early easy pitches such as "Toy Story" (toys — they're alive!) or "A Bug's Life" (the secret life of ants!). "Inside Out," from 2015, took the outward internal and raised the storytelling stakes for the company; it was about feelings and the way our brains work, but still had characters that could be turned into toys, a win-win for everyone. 

"Coco," from 2017, was Pixar's next big creative leap, telling a story of culture, heritage and family that was well-meaning but convoluted. Now comes "Soul," Pixar's most complex production yet, which attempts to tell the tale of — deep breath — a middle school jazz teacher who dies just before he catches his big break, bails on death while en route to heaven, ends up in the place where souls are given their defining personality traits before they're assigned to bodies and evades the corporate bean counters whose tally is off by exactly one dead body, all while turning all of that into an uplifting celebration of life.  

Jamie Foxx voices the lead character in "Soul."

It's a tall order and it doesn't get filled, despite some lovely visuals and some rich storytelling touches from directors Pete Docter ("Inside Out") and Kemp Powers. Jamie Foxx voices Joe Gardner, whose character deserves more than to suffer such an early death (it's not a spoiler) and spend the majority of the movie in the soft-hued "Great Before," convincing lost soul 22 (Tina Fey) of the importance and beauty of being alive. 

With jokes and gags centered around Pizza Rat, hedge fund managers and the New York Knicks, the humor in "Soul" is for adults more than it's for kids, as is its exploration of metaphysics and the inner workings of the human spirit. Kids might be lulled by its dulcet presentation, but despite its big ideas, "Soul" is ambitious but flawed, a high concept high beam act that is a little too wobbly for its own good. It will probably sell a lot of toys, though. 

'Soul'

GRADE: C+

Rated PG: for thematic elements and some language

Running time: 100 minutes

On Disney+ starting Friday

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

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