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(2020) (voices of Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey) (PG)

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Computer-Animated Comedy: After accidentally dying, a music teacher tries to return to Earth to fulfill his life dream of professionally playing piano in a band on stage.

Joe Gardner (voice of JAMIE FOXX) is a musician who dreams of one day playing piano on stage but currently works as a middle-school music teacher. When a former student informs him of a one-time gig playing in the backup band for legendary sax player Dorothea Williams (voice of ANGELA BASSETT), he jumps at the chance. But he's so overjoyed with the opportunity that he doesn't pay attention to where he's walking and ends up falling into an open manhole.

That results in him heading toward the afterlife, something he's not ready for and thus he flees, hoping to return to Earth to fulfill his dream. Instead, he ends up in a realm where new souls are born and then mentored to find their true spark in life before being sent to inhabit a newborn on Earth. Joe pretends to be one of those in hopes of taking such a spark to jump back into his body and ends up with soul 22 (voice of TINA FEY). She's had countless mentors over the centuries, none of which have helped her, what with her being comfortable where she is.

Realizing he could use her spark for himself, he sets out to help her find hers, but a mix-up involving a modern-day shaman of sorts complicates matters back on Earth. All of which means Joe must get everything back in order if he hopes to take the stage and play with Dorothea and the rest of the band.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10

One of my favorite all-time films is "Heaven Can Wait," Buck Henry and Warren Beatty's remake of "Here Comes Mr. Jordan." In it, Beatty plays a professional football player who's plucked from his body by a rookie guardian angel (Henry) upon believing the quarterback and a truck were about to collide in a tunnel.

It's discovered that it wasn't yet Joe Pendelton's time, but with his body having since been cremated, it's up to James Mason's afterlife manager to get Joe into another suitable body, what with him having been all set to lead his team in the Super Bowl.

It's a witty, charming, delightful and even moving flick that still holds up now -- gasp -- 42 years after its release. And my love for that flick might be part of the reason why I love the somewhat thematically similar "Soul."

It's the latest offering from the nearly always reliable Pixar (if one can forget those "Cars" flicks) and the first one to feature an African American protagonist and co-director (Kemp Powers working alongside Pixar vet Pete Doctor, who both co-wrote the screenplay with Mike Jones). Not surprisingly, it's a terrific offering, with excellent visuals, superb vocal work, great music, and enough imagination, creativity, and heart for several films.

Unlike Beatty's character, our main one here, Joe Gardener (voiced by Jamie Foxx), isn't already professionally accomplished in his chosen arena. Yet, he's just as talented and he dreams of getting to play piano while backing the legendary blues sax player Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) rather than slog through teaching musically challenged students.

But his dream seems to be cut short when he accidentally falls into an open manhole cover and then finds himself on a long escalator headed toward a bright white light in the sky along with other dearly departed souls (the fact that each is welcomed by a bug zapper like sound at the top doesn't help matters).

He refuses to go and instead takes refuge in a way station of sorts where new souls are prepped for life on Earth via mentors who help each newborn discover their spark to drive their actions. Needing cover until he figures out what to do, Joe pretends to be a certain mentor and is assigned the "problem child" soul named 22 (voiced by Tina Fey) who's gone through countless teachers (some of them quite famous) over the centuries without any luck.

The problem is she doesn't see the point as life on Earth doesn't look so great and certainly pales in comparison to her current comfortable situation and status quo. So, she humors Joe like all his predecessors, not realizing he wants to help her find her spark so that he can take it, return to Earth, and not be late for his gig.

What follows is fun and funny, with some creative detours that are amusing and clever, none of which I'll spoil. I will say the flick loses a tiny bit of steam late in the third act when 22 goes rogue as a despondent and feral-like "lost soul," but nowhere to the point of diminishing the greatness of what precedes those moments.

Aside from that brief issue, I loved every minute of "Soul" -- which certainly has a lot of that and more going for it. While I haven't quite seen every other offering yet, so far, it's clearly the best animated film of 2020. "Soul" rates as an 8 out of 10.

Reviewed November 30, 2020 / Posted December 25, 2020

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