‘Soul’ is a ‘gorgeous muddle’ filled with artistry, charm and a tangled plot

Jamie Foxx voices Joe Gardner in Disney Pixar’s “Soul.”

Disney

Pixar has done it again. The Academy Award-winning studio owned by Disney is set to release its latest triumph on the company’s streaming service on Christmas Day.

“Soul,” the 23rd feature from Pixar, centers around Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a music teacher with dreams of playing piano professionally. After securing a gig playing with a famed jazz quartet, Joe falls down a manhole, loses consciousness and enters an ethereal plane that is both the afterlife and the beforelife.

Desperate to get back to earth, Joe teams up with a not-yet-born soul called 22 (Tina Fey) to return to his body. However, 22 accidentally winds up in Joe’s body and Joe’s soul finds its way into the hospital therapy cat Mr. Mittens. Now it’s a race against time for Joe to get his body back.

“Soul” is a “gorgeous muddle,” wrote Nicholas Barber of the film in his review for the BBC.

This sentiment was shared by many critics. While beautifully animated and filled with a gorgeous musical score, “Soul” retreads some of the ground that Pixar explored in previous films “Coco” and “Inside Out.”

Its plot is convoluted, a knot of several stories and ideas that sometimes mesh together and sometimes contradict each other, critics said. Still, the film’s heart is what has earned it a 97% “Fresh” rating on review site Rotten Tomatoes from 99 reviews.

Here’s what critics thought of “Soul” ahead of its debut on Disney+ on Friday.

Dan Rubins, Slant

The music of “Soul” has been widely praised by reviewers. The score is bifurcated between the trippy, otherworldly sounds of the ethereal plane and the melodic jazz-inspired world of New York City.

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — primary members of the band Nine Inch Nails, who also composed scores for HBO’s “Watchmen” series — handle the sounds heard in the world of souls. Jon Batiste, often seen alongside Stephen Colbert on “The Late Show” with his band Stay Human, arranged the jazz pieces.

“Not since ’Fantasia’ has a Disney film treated music with such reverence, as the seed of all the visual flowering that follows,” said Dan Rubins in his review for Slant. “As pinks and purples swirl around Joe and as his fingers coax unexpected harmonies from the keyboard (Jon Batiste provides the impassioned playing), ’Soul’ gives itself over fully to his music.”

“For these gloriously substantial few minutes, it’s jazz set to animation rather than the other way around,” he wrote.

Read the full review from Slant.

Tina Fey and Jamie Foxx voice characters in Disney Pixar’s “Soul.”

Disney

Rafer Guzman, Newsday

“‘Soul’ is a frustrating combination of artistry, charm and a Pixar formula that is starting to feel tuckered out,” wrote Rafer Guzman in his review of the film for Newsday.

Guzman praised the film for its stunning visuals and score, but said its similarity to story lines explored in “Inside Out” and “Coco” made it feel “a little too familiar.”

“In the end, the film suffers from life-lesson overload: Chase your dreams, seize the day and smell the roses, but remember that what’s important is right in front of you. It’s enough wisdom to make a kid’s eyes glaze over,” he wrote.

“It can feel ungrateful to complain about Pixar, which has given us so many movies to love,” he said. “The studio might be wise, however, to focus on renewing its spark.”

Read the full review from Newsday.

Nicholas Barber, BBC

The one resounding criticism of “Soul” is that its plot seems overly complicated.

“There is definitely a classic story in there somewhere, but it’s almost buried by all the ideas that have been piled on top of it,” Barber wrote.

“[Pete] Docter could have made a bittersweet musical about a frustrated teacher’s love of jazz, or a zany metaphysical comedy about what goes on behind the scenes of creation,” he said. “He could even have made a decent farce about a man in a cat’s body. But because he tries to do everything at once, he doesn’t give either the astral plane or the real world its due.”

Docter co-directed “Soul” with Kemp Powers. He is the chief creative officer at Pixar and his tenure with the company dates all the way back to “Toy Story” in 1995. He won Academy Awards for “Up” and “Inside Out.”

“The more you think about it, the more of a muddle ‘Soul’ seems to be,” Barber said. “But what a gorgeous muddle it is. It may not be wholly satisfying, but it is exhilarating in its ambition, superbly animated, and brimming with affection for its characters and their milieu.”

Read the full review from BBC.

Jamie Foxx voices Joe Gardner in Disney Pixar’s “Soul.”

Disney

Dan Kois, Slate

“It’s in the movie’s most personal and specific storytelling beats — its interaction with Black culture — that ‘Soul’ delivers more potent storytelling,” Dan Kois wrote in his review for Slate.

While “Soul” is Pixar’s 23rd theatrical film, this is the first time that a Black character has been the main protagonist. Critics praised the filmmakers for their depiction of Black culture, shining a light on it without indulging in cliche.

“Joe’s difficult relationship with his mother and her high expectations is touching and, when it’s resolved, inspiring; the movie’s treatment of jazz as both a dynamic art form and a Black cultural touchstone is affectionate and energetic; a scene inside a Black barbershop transcends the cinematic familiarity of the setting to provide a loving look at a cultural institution that also pushes the plot forward,” he said.

Read the full review from Slate.

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of CNBC and owns Rotten Tomatoes.

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