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'Soul' Surprises With Its Messages About Finding Purpose


Pixar's newest movie, "Soul," was originally intended for theaters. But due to the pandemic, Disney released the animated film on Disney+ on Christmas. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says that's good news for families looking for an uplifting holiday diversion.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: "Soul" is a movie that accomplishes quite a lot. It's an emotional tribute to the inspiring power of music, especially jazz. It's also a creative, often playful take on the afterlife, with human souls depicted as cute powder-blue dollops of energy. And it's a wonderful vehicle for star Jamie Foxx, who voices frustrated jazz pianist Joe Gardner. He works as a middle school music teacher listening to performances like this.


DEGGANS: So you can imagine he's less than thrilled when the principal offers him a full-time teaching job. Joe just wants to get lost in the music, which he illustrates by telling his class a little story.


JAMIE FOXX: (As Joe Gardner) I remember one time, my dad took me to this jazz club. And that's the last place I wanted to be. But then I see this guy (playing piano), and he's playing these chords for a song. And then with a minor (playing piano) - and I wanted to learn (playing piano) how to talk like that. Connie knows what I mean. Right, Connie?

CORA CHAMPOMMIER: (As Connie) I'm 12.

DEGGANS: That's often how "Soul" tells its story, following poignant, revelatory moments with a quick joke to keep things from getting too heavy - which is important because not too long after scoring a gig as the pianist for a famous jazz artist...


FOXX: (As Joe Gardner) Yes. Woo-hoo. You see that jazz? That's what I'm talking about. You know what they're going to say? Joe Gardner (laughter).

DEGGANS: Joe falls down a manhole and finds himself stuck in the afterlife on a conveyor belt stretching towards a blinding white light. Joe tells the other souls next to him he's got other plans.


FOXX: (As Joe Gardner) No, no, no, no, no, no. Listen, I have a gig tonight. I can't die now.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Well, I really don't think you have a lot to say about this.

FOXX: (As Joe Gardner) Yes. Yes, I do.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I don't think you're supposed to go that way.

FOXX: (As Joe Gardner) This can't happen. I'm not dying today - not when my life just started.

DEGGANS: This may not sound like the setup to a heartwarming story, but keep watching because "Soul" may surprise you with how its delightfully odd messages on finding your life's purpose translate into an enjoyable, sometimes rollicking tale. The animation here, especially of the musicians, is detailed and elegant. Joe's playing is modeled on the nimble fingers and physicality of jazz star Jean-Baptiste.


DEGGANS: As Joe loses himself in playing, he's surrounded by swirling lights and pulsing colors, a perfect depiction of the moment when a musician connects with their instrument, and everything else falls away. But most importantly, Joe is Pixar's first Black lead character. Watching his journey, you can see that the production team took pains to create authentic-looking Black characters while avoiding typical animation stereotypes.

When Joe is mistaken for a mentor in the afterlife, he's paired with a young soul named 22, played by Tina Fey. 22 so resists going to Earth, she's angered some pretty well-known mentors, as she happily explains.


TINA FEY: (As 22) I've had thousands of mentors who failed and now hate me - Mother Teresa...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Mother Teresa) I have compassion for every soul - except you. I don't like you.

FEY: (As 22) ...Copernicus...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Copernicus) The world doesn't revolve around you, 22.

FEY: (As 22) ...Muhammad Ali.

AVERY KIDD WADDELL: (As Muhammad Ali) You are the greatest pain in the butt.

DEGGANS: When these two team up to get Joe's soul back into his body, the story really takes off. At the end of a very tough year, "Soul" provides the perfect palate cleanser - a story filled with music and sly humor based on the idea that devotion to what you think is your life's purpose doesn't matter much if you don't find time to live a little while pursuing it.

I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.