Soul's title is a bit of virtue signaling: This is Pixar's first feature about black characters, and they really seem to be proud of that, so they called it Soul just to make it clear. While it's a little disingenuous – after all, the film is about jazz, not soul music – its story indeed concerns the soul: not what it is, per se, but what you do with it.
The movie opens with a talented but frustrated jazz pianist named Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) who, on the literal eve of his big break, falls into a manhole and dies. Suddenly finding himself on a cosmic conveyor belt leading to the Great Beyond, Joe is hell-bent – sorry – on returning to Earth so he can live out his dream of playing professionally. A bungled escape attempt accidentally lands him in the Great Before, where unborn souls await life on terra firma. A series of convolutions places Joe in care of an ornery unborn soul named 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), who refuses to obtain the "spark" needed to bring her into material existence, and a buddy movie comes to life.
This is one of those situations where, although you can probably already predict the ending, you won't expect all the twists and turns that take you there. So I won't reveal any more about Soul's plot, lest I ruin any surprises. Suffice to say, the film is pure Pixar, with a snappy pace and a beautiful look – especially in the novel design of its celestial bureaucrats, which borrows a little from cubism and a lot from Italian animator Osvaldo Cavandoli's minimalistic '70s series La Linea. Likewise, the story takes cues from both the Powell-Pressburger classic A Matter of Life and Death and the Steve Martin-Lily Tomlin comedy All of Me. If you're getting the sense that I found the film's elements a little too familiar, you're right, although I still enjoyed the results.
Although there's nothing family-unfriendly about the film, it's hard to argue that Soul isn't aimed squarely at adults. The characters, jokes, and themes will fly over the heads of all but the most precocious children. That said, while director Pete Docter, along with co-director Kemp Powers and their cowriter Mike Jones, are certainly ambitious to literally tackle the meaning of life, the answer their film ultimately delivers is so trite and simplistic that I felt disappointed. Ironically, while Soul explicitly ponders the nature of existence, the Toy Story films remain more truly and deeply existential.