“Soul’s” afterlife adventures begin on an earthbound plane. Joe Gardener (Jamie Foxx) is a seventh-grade music teacher who gets the big break he’s always dreamt of when he aces an audition to play piano in the band of a legendary jazz saxophonist (Angela Bassett). “Music is all I think about,” he says. “From the moment I wake up in the morning. To the moment I fall asleep at night. I was born to play. It’s my reason for living.”
He leaves the club on cloud nine, not knowing that he would soon, literally, be on cloud nine. On his way home he falls in a manhole. Knocked out, his soul separated from his body, he enters The Great Before, a strange and serene place where his spectral being—imagine Casper the Friendly ghost with a fedora and glasses—is greeted by The Counselors. They run the joint, and assign Joe to mentor a rambunctious yet-to-be-born soul called 22 (Tina Fey). “I’ve had thousands of mentors who have failed,” 22 says, “and now hate me.” Joe’s job is to find the spark, the missing part of 22’s personality, that will complete her as a person. “You can’t crush a soul here,” 22 tells Joe. “That’s what life on earth is for.”
The next step is a big one. The odd couple dive into the astral plane, plummet toward earth where 22 winds up in Joe’s body as Joe takes the form of the therapy cat assigned to his comatose body by the hospital. Trapped in the wrong bodies, the pair set off to discover the meaning of life.
Like the jazz music that dots the score, “Soul” is free-form, inventive and sometimes just a little hard to understand. It’s an existential riff on a buddy comedy. Or maybe “Freaky Friday” as directed by Frank Capra. Either way, it has a lot on its mind although it never digs too deep. Ultimately the ethereal action boils down to a simple message of mindfulness, of being aware of the simple joy life offers.
Along the way you have an imaginatively animated movie, earnest in its storytelling, laden with interesting details and nice voice work from Foxx, Pixar’s first African-American lead and Fey, who gives 22 a sardonic but philosophical edge.
Despite typical cartoony touches, like a toffee-nosed accountant soul and some feline slapstick, “Soul” is a life-affirming, poignant look at what it means to be human.