Credit: Disney/Pixar

Soul feels easily like one of the best Pixar movies in years, though calling it that also seems a little bit unfair to the target demographic, like ordering a kids’ meal off the menu with no child in sight. Technically, yes, you can eat those tiny nuggets or PB&J sandwich yourself; but were they actually meant for you?

Yet that might in fact (to extend a tortured metaphor) be the studio’s smartest trick: its ability to deliver metaphysical wisdom with the crusts cut off, life lessons stealthily embedded in every bright pixel. On the face of it, Soul’s hero — a nebbishy junior-high band teacher named Joe Gardner — hardly seems to hold the promise of a tender-hearted toy cowboy or a forgetful little tang fish; he’s obscure and middle-aged and frankly pretty much a failure, right up until the moment a chance gig gives him his first opportunity in decades to show what he can do on stage. Even then fate seems to be rooting against him, sending him directly from his big break into — first-reel spoiler! — an open manhole.

And so Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) and the movie are plunged into magic. Goodbye to the drab greige realities of New York City; hello to the oceanic glow of the Great Before, an aurora borealis of glimmering blues and lavenders and aquamarines where, as one kindly Picasso-squiggle of a spirit-figure explains, “new souls get their personalities, quirks, and interests before they go to Earth.” Joe has somehow cheated death, you see; bouncing from the intake line of the afterlife back to its starting point, a sort of great recycling center in the sky.

That’s where he meets another outlier called 22 (Tina Fey), a delinquent little blob whose adamant refusal to inhabit an earthly body has thwarted the best efforts of centuries of well-intentioned mentors, from Abraham Lincoln to Gandhi. It doesn't take long for Joe and 22 to realize that they might be each other’s ticket out of this purgatory if they can find a way to work together — and possibly wrangle the assistance of a roving band of existential shamans, a mystics-without-borders crew helmed by Graham Norton’s beatific Moonwind.

Company veteran Pete Docter, who shares directing and screenplay credit with One Night in Miami playwright Kemp Powers (Mike Jones also contributed to the script), gives long reins to his stars, letting Fey et al. toss off freewheeling riffs on Carl Jung, George Orwell, and other subjects even the most precocious eight-year-old won't have picked up at Montessori. That some of their best lines are also the least accessible to large swathes of the film's underage audience can feel like playing offsides, metaphorically, but those bits pass by so breezily it seems mean to penalize them.

They're all just pieces of flair, anyhow, when it comes to the bedrock philosophy — re: hopes and dreams and what makes life truly worth living — that underpins the movie (which comes to Disney+ Christmas Day). Like the best moments in Up or WALL-E or Inside Out, the alchemy of Soul's final scenes find Pixar at its most stirring and enduring, a marshmallow puff of surreal whimsy that somehow lightly touches the profound. Grade: A–

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