Attention, please! Quiet coyote . . . quiet coyote . . .
Can we talk for a moment about Soul? It’s PIXAR’s story about 8th-grade band teacher Joe Gardner and his search for purpose, meaning in life, and a gig with his favorite jazz musician, and more than a year after its release, it’s still got a timely message for us all.
After multiple delays thanks to the pandemic, Soul finally debuted on Disney+ on Christmas Day 2020. It was written and directed by veteran PIXAR rock star and Chief Creative Officer Pete Docter who also wrote and directed Monsters, Inc. (2001), Wall-E (2008), Up (2009), and Inside Out (2015), among other PIXAR films. It also features a talented cast of voice actors including Jamie Foxx as Joe Gardner, Tina Fey as Soul #22, simply called “22,” Graham Norton as Terry the accountant, and other notable names such as Phylicia Rashad, Angela Bassett, and of course, the always-present PIXAR cameo staple, John Ratzenberger. (But in Soul, Ratzenberger’s likeness is used, rather than his voice. That’s a first for PIXAR.)
On the very same day Joe auditions at the Half Note Club for his idol, jazz legend Dorothea Williams and is invited to open that night with her quartet, he falls into a manhole while walking along the streets of New York, and his looming death lands him on his way to the Great Beyond. But Joe isn’t going down like that, and–deciding to take matters into his own hands (including his own mortality)–protests against his untimely passing by finagling his way back to earth, refusing the Great Beyond, and instead posing as a mentor.
In the storyline, mentors are those who made achievements during their lifetimes that inspire souls not yet on earth to find their “sparks” before being born on earth and taking on a physical body.
Joe fakes his way through the mentoring program to avoid the Great Beyond and trick the next unsuspecting soul into giving him her Earth pass once he helps her find her spark. How hard can it be? He’s a jazz musician, and everyone is inspired by jazz, right?
Wrong, at least for soul #22, who has a laundry list of past famous mentors, including Muhammad Ali, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa, and others, who were never able to help 22 find her spark so she could go to earth.
But it’s no skin off her non-existent nose because she has no interest in going to earth. When she and Joe see a large structure fall on top of a group of souls near the You Seminar, Joe expresses his concern about the souls being crushed, to which 22 responds, “That’s what earth is for.”
Upon meeting Joe, however, 22 is intrigued. Joe has led a seemingly worthless life, even by his own account, but he’ll still stop at nothing to get back to that life instead of going to the Great Beyond. And 22 has just got to see what the draw is for him.
After experiencing the simplicities of life on earth–those that Joe had never noticed or appreciated–22 decides Earth might just be for her, but that means she won’t be giving her Earth pass to Joe, and that doesn’t sit well with him. After all, they had a deal.
What follows is Joe’s continued attempts to get back to the one thing he’s been chasing: the gig with Dorothea Williams, which he just knows will lead to his becoming a famous jazz musician and finally give his life meaning.
But once he finishes his very successful first night as part of the Dorothea Williams jazz quartet, Joe isn’t nearly as fulfilled as he thought he would be. He leaves the Half Note Club and is overwhelmed by a deflated sense of the evening. Shouldn’t the realization of one of his greatest dreams have left him ecstatic, over the moon, eager to do it all over again the next night?
That’s what he thought. But it doesn’t ring true for Joe, who learns that it was the individual experiences, people, and memories that, one by one, added to the worth and value of his life, not a big night at the Half Note Club.
And in chasing only that one big experience, he had missed so much in life–so many opportunities, experiences, conversations, memories.
In true PIXAR fashion (which I love because it’s never hokey or corny or cheesy, but rather exceptionally moving and thought-provoking), during an originally-composed musical piece called “Epiphany,” Joe takes a reminiscent and nostalgic look back over his life, and no part of it involved Dorothea Williams, jazz, or chasing the possibility of purpose in his life.
Rather, the montage includes scenes from Joe’s mind’s eye of experiences we never knew he had, of experiences he hadn’t yet stopped to notice and appreciate, and of what mattered most in his life up to that point.
He learns that a soul’s spark and a soul’s purpose are two different things, and though he knew his spark well, he realizes that he never found his purpose before he died.
No complete spoilers here, but I can tell you that the last line of the film spoken by Joe himself, is simple, yet so poignant that tears welled up in my eyes. Soul continues to spur me on to take a closer look on the inside and see whether I’m truly living life or just existing on the road toward something I hope will one day fulfill me, every time I watch it.
As expected, the art direction in the film is something to be patterned after by other animation powerhouses, and all of the wonderful little finite details and nuances for which PIXAR is known are packed into Soul as well.
Critics of the film have questioned which audience PIXAR was targeting in the creation of Soul–children or adults–to which I say, “The message of the film isn’t bound by age, so who cares?”
Though Soul touches on topics about which viewers may have vastly different beliefs and opinions, such as the meaning of life, the purpose of life, the age-old “free will vs. fate” debate, and the afterlife, it does so in such a way that no viewer is ostracized, and in such a way that everyone who watches it is able to draw his or her own conclusions, ultimately personalizing the resulting message.
And unlike Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disney World, there are no likenesses or references to hell.
Like PIXAR’s Inside Out, Soul is a story in which the writers’ voices and personal experiences serve as inspiration and draw the viewer in to reflect on his or her own experiences and relate them back to the central theme of the film, thus making Soul a story for us all, regardless of age, gender, background or beliefs. Don’t you love a film that inspires you to take a second look at life?
More than a year after its release, Soul is still streaming on Disney+ (of course!), so if you haven’t seen it yet, the weekend is upon us! And if you have seen it, why not watch it again? It’s so nice to see a film that inspires every time it’s played, and Soul has earned that accolade in my book!
It’s a masterpiece, and you’ll love it–heart and “Soul,” I promise.