Arriving on Disney+ on Christmas Day, “Soul” is a children’s movie for grown-ups and a grown-up movie for children. That’s another way of saying it’s a Pixar film. One of their better ones, too, if not in the top drawer with “Monsters, Inc.,” “WALL-E,” “Up,” and “Toy Story 3.” But definitely in the next bin down with the animation studio’s more existential musings like “Inside Out” and “Coco.” The first of those took place inside an adolescent girl’s mind, while the other was set in the Afterlife. Upping the ante, “Soul” unfolds in the Great Before — the place you go before you’re born.
Half of it, anyway. The other half of “Soul” takes place on Earth, in Manhattan, captured with a gossamer CGI touch at the height of fall. Autumn in New York, and never lovelier. Not coincidentally, the hero, Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), is a middle-aged middle school music teacher, a jazz pianist waiting for his big break. The day he gets it — winning an audition to play a few sets with a saxophone legend (Angela Bassett) — is also the day he dies in a random accident. Bummer.
Joe finds himself transformed into a cute blue blob with glasses and a fedora — think Dizzy Gillespie as a Smurf — and on an escalator to the great gig in the sky. He rebels. He’s not ready yet. He pushes through some kind of tear in the metaphysical fabric and finds himself in what looks like Teletubbieland peopled by the little guys at the end of “Close Encounters.” These are all the souls in line to be born, waiting for their “spark” to push them over the edge toward human life.
If I’m making “Soul” sound like a mash-up of ideas — some interestingly fanciful, some gruesomely cute — it is. What saves the film from kitsch, time and again, is the Pixar level of craftsmanship, which at times remains godlike. House director Pete Docter also gave us “Monsters, Inc.,” “Up,” and “Inside Out,” which is not a batting average one argues with, and the visual ingenuity of “Soul” can be as rapturous as the script is clever. (The movie would look great on the big moviehouse screens it was originally intended for.)
I especially liked the design of the bureaucratic administrators of the Great Before, shape-shifting line-drawings that have a retro-modern ’50s feel. (They owe a lot to the work of maverick animation house UPA Studios, which broke a lot of rules laid down by Walt Disney.) The bureaucrats are all named Jerry, and they give Joe the job of mentoring 22 (Tina Fey), a little soul who doesn’t want to be born. How surly is 22? She made Mother Teresa cry. Can Joe help her find her spark? As always with Pixar, it’s how you get where you already know you’re going that makes the journey special.
After “Inside Out” and “Coco,” though, the scenes in the Great Before show the studio’s super-geniuses starting to repeat themselves. It’s the Manhattan sequences that stick with a viewer, even with some antic body-switching complications when Joe and 22 make a return sojourn to Earth. The colors and street scenes evoke classic New Yorker covers, and the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross stirs the emotions before taking a back seat to the terrific jazz set-pieces composed and scored by Jon Batiste. The latter is the secret hero of this movie; when Joe is slamming the ivories, that’s Batiste you’re hearing.
The script is by Docter, Mike Jones, and Kemp Powers, who’s also credited as co-director. Powers is having a year, with this movie and with Regina King’s fine adaptation of his play “One Night in Miami” opening in select theaters this week (it comes to Boston Jan. 15). I’m thinking that he might be responsible for some of the richest scenes in “Soul,” like the one set in the neighborhood barbershop where Joe goes to get cleaned up before his performance, or the byplay in the tailor shop where Joe’s disapproving mother (Phylicia Rashad) oversees a pair of busybody seamstresses. These feel genuinely lived in, in a way we’re not used to seeing in animated films.
The laughs, and there are plenty, have the zing of vintage Pixar, whether it’s a throwaway gag involving the celebrated New York pizza rat or the extended slapstick of Joe’s body trying to walk with someone else in the driver’s seat. The visuals are inspired while nodding to their influences: the heavenly staircase of the 1940s classic “A Matter of Life and Death” or the frightening “lost souls” who recall both “The Iron Giant” and the more surreal figments of Hayao Miyazaki’s imaginarium.
There’s a lot in this stewpot, in other words, and not all of it is to taste. But the film’s moral is hard to dispute — live life while you’ve got it, for lack of a better phrase — and it’s embodied in a small, singular bit of the natural world that represents the closest a Pixar movie has come to Zen. “Soul” is messy, maudlin, funny, ridiculous, and poignant. In other words, it has soul.
Directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers. Written by Docter, Powers, and Mike Jones. With the voices of Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey. Available on Disney+. 101 minutes. PG (thematic elements, some language).