Imagine being on the verge of achieving something you've dreamed about your whole life. Jazz pianist Joe Gardner (voice by Jamie Foxx) finds himself in exactly that position in Soul, the latest animated feature from Pixar.
Sounds like a serviceable enough premise, but directors Peter Doctor and Kemp Powers quickly pull the rug out from under us, catapulting us from the streets of New York into an alternate reality -- in this case the gateway to the afterlife.
Here's how it happens: Elated at having landed a gig with a renowned jazz combo led by saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), Joe loses himself in a moment of elation, falls into a manhole, and finds himself on the edge of death.
Doctor, who directed the much-admired Inside Out, allows his team's imagination to rip as Joe tries to figure out how not to climb the conveyor belt to the Great Beyond. He wants to play that gig more than he wants to ascend into any heavenly realm.
Doctor and Powers use Joe's quest to cling to earthly life as a vehicle for introducing a variety of characters, the most important of which is voiced by Tina Fey. She's Soul #22, a soul that has no desire to experience earthly existence.
It's not that Soul #22 hasn't had decent guidance. Souls are instructed by mentors and #22 has had some of the best, including Abraham Lincoln and Mother Theresa.
Soul #22 and Joe team up as they juggle their various agendas: It takes a taste of physicality in the form of a slice of pizza to make #22 think life on Earth might not be so bad.
The movie also takes us to various other realms that are quickly explained and that are populated by various characters that provide voice work for Wes Studi, Richard Ayoade, and Alice Braga.
A confession: For all of Soul's other-worldly creativity, I hated to see Joe fall down that hole. I wanted to see an animated feature about a jazz musician.
I knew that Pixar wasn't going to do a full Ralph Bakshi (if you don't know, look him up), but the opening and some of the music segments of Soul offer jazz and idealized urban landscapes that are so warmly appealing I hated to leave them.
The movie's jazz score was arranged by John Batiste, familiar from Stephen Colbert's Late Night. Music for the rest of the movie was written by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
Not surprisingly, there's a moral to the story. Joe must learn that the pursuit of a single-minded dream can blind one to the small wonders of simply being alive, joys that are available to all of us simple because we're inhabitants of Earth.
Not many will want to argue with the message and Pixar offers another deluge of creativity. Whatever else they may be, Pixar movies tend to be celebrations of animated artistry and its ability to stir the imagination.