Producer: Dana Murray   Directors: Pete Docter and Kemp Powers   Screenplay: Peter Docter, Mike Jones and Kemp Powers   Cast: Jamie Fox, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Ahmir-Khalib Thompson (Questlove), Angela Bassett, Cora Champommier, Margo Hall, Daveed Diggs, Rhodessa Jones, Wes Studi, Sakina Jaffrey, Fortune Feimster, Calum Grant, Laura Mooney, Peggy Flood, Zenobia Shroff, June Squibb, Ochuwa Oghie, Jeannie Tirado and Catherine Cavadini   Distributor: Walt Disney Motion Pictures

Grade:  B+

The “theological” underpinnings of “Soul” may be difficult for some viewers to deal with, but whatever your reaction to that aspect of the latest from writer-director Pete Docter (“Up,” “Inside Out”), the film is yet another triumph for Pixar.  What sets the studio apart from other animation factories isn’t just the technical finesse, which is a given, but the imagination behind the storytelling when the work is at its best, as it is here.  Like the finest Pixar pictures, “Soul” engages both the brain and the heart, and does so in a visually entrancing fashion.

It’s the story of Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a part-time middle-school music teacher in New York who’s always wanted to be a professional jazz pianist.  No sooner does the principal offer him a full-time permanent position than he’s contacted by a former student, Curley (Amir “Questlove” Thompson), who invites him to audition for an opening in the quartet headed by Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), an iconic saxophone star, in which he’s the drummer.  Naturally Joe jumps at the chance, and is so happy with the result that he’s blissfully unaware of all the close shaves he avoids on the way home until he falls down an open manhole and finds himself in the Great Beyond, a soul—a blue blob with some of his features—on an escalator travelling up to the famous White Light, which spirits them off to who knows where. 

Unwilling to give up his chance to fulfill his dream, Joe pushes past the souls behind him on the conveyer belt until he reaches the Great Before, a corporate-minded way station for souls not yet born, who, after some traits are impressed on them at a festival-like seminar, are assigned seasoned mentors to shepherd them to find their “spark,” that ineffable quality that will become a driving element of their being. 

Joe is mistaken by the organizers of this process—a trio of easygoing bureaucrats,  all called Jerry (Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade and Wes Studi), who look like surrealistic line drawings—for the soul of a noted psychologist, and given the responsibility of dealing with a newbie called No. 22 (Tina Fey), who has resisted many previous efforts to induce her to embrace her destined role as a human, even when guided by luminaries like Abe Lincoln and Mother Theresa.  Joe has to balance that responsibility with the desire to fulfill his own dream, even as another of the otherworldly bureaucrats, detail-obsessed Terry (Rachel House), thinks that something’s amiss and is determined to track down—and fix—the error.

One doesn’t want to give away too much about what follows as Joe and No. 22 go down to earth, but it involves some transformations involving Joe’s body, which is being kept alive in a hospital, the still-unformed No. 22, and a therapy cat at the hospital named Mr. Mittens.  The movie turns into a frantic race for Joe to reclaim his body, fulfill his performance dream, and deal with the doubts of his mother (Phylicia Rashad) while he begins to understand that his job as a teacher is, in some respects, more important than his longed-for professional career. 

Meanwhile No. 22 is gradually coming to appreciate the ostensibly trivial joys of being human in a tactile sense, which makes her reconsider her resistance to coming to earth.  And all this hasn’t yet touched on yet another character, a goofy yet profound fellow called Moonwind (Graham Norton), who captains an galleon on the other side dedicated to rescuing the sort of “lost souls” that Joe or No. 22 might become, but also appears as a sign-twirling sidewalk guy in New York capable of offering Joe some sage advice at decisive moments.

One of the aspects of “Soul” that will be commented upon most frequently is how it reflects African-American culture, something that’s been conspicuously lacking in Pixar product until now.  That’s shown not only in its embrace of jazz (with references to some famous performers), but in other ways as well—a visit to a barbershop where the clientele spout quips about their experiences in society and nods to contributions by blacks to the modern world.  The message isn’t laid on with a heavy hand, but it’s consistently there nonetheless.  Doubtless the influence of Docter’s collaborator Kemp Powers can be seen in the sensitivity exhibited in that respect. 

And, of course, the film showcases black talent, not only in terms of the uniformly excellent voice cast but musicians as well; John Baptiste, for instance, is credited with the jazz numbers that are melded into the overall score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

All of this is situated within the dazzling visuals that contrast the phantasmagorical look of the otherworldly sequences with the grittier, more “realistic” tone of the earthbound ones.  In so seamless a work it’s difficult to separate out the contributions of each artist, but they work together to achieve a remarkable effect. Among those especially deserving of mention are production designer Steve Pilcher, cinematographers Matt Aspbury and Ian Megibben, editor Kevin Nolting, and the various team supervisors—Michael Fong (visual effects), Jude Brownbill and Bobby Podesta (animation), Michael Comet and Junyi Ling (character design) and Jun Han Cho (sets).  Together they’ve fashioned a stunning example of animated art at the current cutting-edge. 

Finally, one can credit Docter for the complexity of “Soul,” which not only covers a lot of “physical” territory (and varied territory at that), but also delivers a layered message.  On the one hand, it emphasizes the importance of following one’s dream, but at the same time cautions—especially in a telling conversation Joe has with a barber named Dez (Donnell Rawlings)—about becoming so obsessive in doing so that you might lose sight of the other important elements of life—the relationships and pleasures that can, almost imperceptibly, fall by the wayside in the process.

The complexities of the film, both visual and narrative, might challenge both children and adults at times, though perhaps in different ways.  But “Soul” should be able to overcome any such difficulties, as “Up” and “Inside Out” certainly did, to appeal to everyone across the age spectrum