Movie Review: Pixar dabbles in jazz, speculates on the “Soul” in this engaging dramedy

“Soul” is Pixar’s intellectually ambitious companion piece to “Inside/Out,” a whimsical “Outside/In” take on what makes us human.

It’s comical, but not really a comedy, spiritual without being all that deep. But as it grapples with what drives a creative person, paints the “after life” and “before life” eternity in Picasso-with-a-light-pen strokes and questions what makes life worth living, it can be quite touching.

As to “answers” about The Meaning of Life and the concept of “soul,” let’s just say it’s a Zen koan where the punchline is “Whatever we say it is.” Parent and preacher, mystic and guru — all seekers are all legitimized as those with answers for those with questions.

Jamie Foxx is the voice of Joe Gardner, 40something and single, a New Yorker and middle school music teacher who’s just been offered the chance to switch to full time.

But he is another “Mr. Holland,” and this wasn’t the “opus” he imagined for his life. Mom (Phylicia Rashad) may be relieved he’s moved beyond that “dead end gigging” that’s been his life.

But a former student (voiced by Quest Love of The Roots, “The Tonight Show’s” house band) hooks him up. The kid grew up to be a drummer for a star sax player (Angela Bassett, regal in form, regal in voice) and they need a piano player. It’s Joe’s shot at a Big Break.

If you’re old enough to have seen “Heaven Can Wait,” you know that’s the very day Joe dies, and that his first words on realizing his fate will be “I can’t die NOW!”

He finds himself in an officious afterlife where “The Great Beyond” is at the upper end of the escalator. But he wants off, and he stumbles across loopholes in the bureaucracy. He’s mistaken for a Nobel laureate in the mentor program for “new souls” and assigned the incorrigible future human #22.

She sounds like Tina Fey because that’s a “voice that annoys people.” And she is hellbent on not living a life, and even if she’s never actually lived one and thus has no serious experience to draw on. Famous souls, from Mother Teresa to Copernicus, the Greeks to Gandhi, have taken a shot at mentoring/convincing her to come to Earth. No dice. Joe realizes this will be “soul crushing” work.

“You can’t crush a soul here. That’s what life on Earth is for!”

But Joe’s determined efforts take them to the sea of lost souls, and a pirate ship captained by a whimsically spiritual seeker/guide to getting Joe back to his life to fulfill what he figures is his destiny. Moonwind (Graham Norton, a hoot) may be a captain here. On Earth, he’s a sign spinner on 14th and 7th, an aged hippy guru.

That’s one of the best conceits of “Soul.” Musicians, artists and creative people who get “in the zone” are experiencing the divine, as are mystics of every stripe. They are living corporeal lives on Earth, occasionally venturing into the very afterlife Joe’s been sentenced to. They’re teachers and go betweens — literally.

Will Joe will learn what he’s really seeking, what his real destiny might be? Will #22 find her bliss, what makes life worth risking on Earth?

I found the whole afterlife business here more derivative and somewhat less comforting than perhaps the film’s creators (writer-director Pete Docter of “Monsters, Inc.,” “Up,” “Wall-E” and “Inside/Out” is the guiding force) intended. This is supposed to be a child’s guide to spirituality, right?

The afterlife/before-life animation is original, but amorphous and aside from the Picasso homages, mostly a drab palette in shades of blue. A Who’s Who of pointlessly-famous voices rush by as various officials, all named “Jerry” or “Gerel” (Alice Braga, Wes Studi, June Squibb,Richard Ayoade).

Rachel House is “Terry,” the accountant who chases Joe’s missing soul hither and yon, determined to balance the supernatural books and thus is the half-hearted villain of the piece.

But the jazz scenes, where Joe falls into an almost ecstatic trance, the explanations of jazz improv as “a conversation” in an elite language that people strive their whole creative lives to master, are some of the most glorious and transcendent in Pixar history.

Another late-night band leader, Jon Batiste of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” created the jazz here. I want the soundtrack.

And the jazz is how the viewer should approach “Soul.” Simplistic and derivative it may be, it’s still not something you’re meant to wholly understand. It’s a film that you feel.

MPA Rating: PG

Cast: The voices of Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Angela Bassett, Quest Love, Rachel House, Phylicia Rashad, Alice Braga, Daveed Diggs, Wes Studi

Credits: Directed by Pete Docter, Kemp Powers, script by Pete Docter, Kemp Powers and Mike Jones. A Disney/Pixar release on Disney+.

Running time: 1:41

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