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‘Soul’ proves second-tier Pixar is pretty good

For a movie that spends a lot of time creating a unique plane of existence, “Soul” is at its best when it’s earthbound.

The story starts in New York City, and the animators’ work creating the hustle and bustle of city life merits the visual storytelling acclaim Pixar has received for decades. The humans are a bit more stylized, but the action unfolds in a city so hyper-realistic, you can smell the beer in the unlit jazz club and feel the trimmed hair on the floor of the barber shop.

It’s the city Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) has called home his entire life. On the day his teaching gig at a middle school becomes full-time (bringing with it a steady income, benefits, health care and other things struggling musicians seldom have), he gets a chance at his dream job.

Curley (Questlove), one of his former students, calls him to fill in on piano with jazz great Dorthea Williams (Angela Bassett). The audition goes so well, Joe has a chance at a regular gig playing the music he loves.

He’s so excited walking home that he doesn’t notice a missing manhole cover and plummets to his death.

When he realizes he’s ascending to “the Great Beyond,” he starts running the other way on the spiritual conveyor belt. He ends up in the Great Before, the place where new souls hang out until they find their spark and make the journey to Earth.

Joe is mistaken for a famous psychiatrist, who was supposed to be a mentor to 22 (Tina Fey), a soul with no interest in making the trip to Earth. Gardner finds a way back to Earth with 22, but 22 ends up in Joe’s body while Joe’s soul inhabits a cat, which leads to all sorts of slapstick antics sure to please younger viewers.

At least this development takes the story back to the city, where Joe gets a chance to view his life as experienced by someone else. There’s a great scene in a barbershop where Joe connects in a new way with a barber (Donnell Rawlings) he’s known for years.

“Soul” has gotten a lot of attention as the first Pixar movie with an African-American protagonist, and the first with an African-American co-director (Kemp Powers, working with Pete Docter, who directed “Inside Out” and “Up”). That said, it’s not a fresh or new direction for the animation studio.

The Great Before is a device similar to the world inside the mind imagined for “Inside Out.” There are more than a few plot similarities to 2017’s “Coco.” And the message about appreciating the simple pleasures of life could apply to several Pixar films.

That makes “Soul” seem like second-tier Pixar. But “second tier” from a studio that’s won more best animated feature Academy Awards than every other studio combined still is pretty good. And for Disney + subscribers, having this movie show up for free on Christmas day is a great present.

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