So much of modern animation targeted at children fails to aspire to be anything more than the most vapid of entertainment — filled with flashing lights, bright colors and loud characters that fail to capture the imaginations of anyone above an elementary school age, and ultimately offers a message no deeper than basic tenets of right or wrong.
Pixar’s latest feature, “Soul,” is almost the complete opposite. While it may contain those flashing lights, bright colors and loud characters, it often dives into some dark places — touching on themes and messages that could easily be lost upon the usual targeted age group, but truthfully hits home for older viewers. In a way, “Soul” feels like it’s less aimed at Pixar’s bread-and-butter age group, and more at those who were children when first captivated by the magic of “Toy Story” 25 years ago, and who are now adults with their own children.
Joe Gardner, voiced wonderfully by Jamie Foxx, is a down on his luck would-be musician who pays his exorbitant Queens rent by serving as a part-time band teacher at an inner city school. The movie nails that crumbling school atmosphere, populated by children who would rather do anything other than envelop themselves in the arts. Gardner’s frustration with the apathy of his students is matched only by his frustration with himself, as he’s never managed to get over the hump in order to be a full-time musician. It’s an especially timely topic today, as so many small time musicians — already struggling when times were good — find themselves in even more precarious situations as Covid has shut down playing gigs.
After being offered a full time teaching position that would secure Gardner’s financial future — a development that his mom constantly reminds him of — he manages to land one last gig playing alongside one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. For Gardner, a life as a school teacher, even with financial security, is a waste because he’s not fulfilling his passion. But this gig could set him off on a different path — one of real happiness — until he falls in a sewer and literally dies.
“Soul” then transports the reader to various aspects of the afterlife and “beforelife,” as the movie explores the various levels of existence. Gardner refuses to journey to the Great Beyond, the final destination for every soul, as he feels he has unfinished business. He wants to play that gig. The mundane and bleak colors and visuals of New York City are replaced with the bright and colorful vistas of the beforelife and afterlife realms, where new souls are molded and educated before diving into Earth to occupy new bodies. It’s here where Gardner meets 22, voiced by Tina Fey, who is literally the 22nd soul ever created, but refuses to go to Earth because she doesn’t want to live.
Much like how “Inside Out” explored the thoughts and feelings of a young girl trying to find herself with outrageous characters and insane antics, “Soul” dives into existential topics, such as the meaning of life, discovering one’s true purpose and acceptance of one’s place in the world. The core conflict of the movie isn’t between Gardner and some carefully-created enemy designed solely to sell merchandise. It’s centered around his path to discovery and enlightenment, and that battle that we all face at some point in our lives between wanting to fulfill our dreams and making the best of the hand life has dealt.
In true Pixar fashion, the movie packages these deeper themes in a more palpable manner for consumption by both children and adults. Most of the messages will go over the heads of children, who will still be entertained by the beautiful images and the multiple comedic moments and action sequences. At one point, a human soul is accidentally placed in a cat, which creates its own mess of troubles.
It’s refreshing to see an animated powerhouse engross itself so much in the African-American culture. It doesn’t feel forced, but rather very natural in how it showcases black representation. One of the most powerful scenes in the film is a near 10-minute segment set in a black barbershop, where Gardner learns just how much he’s forsaken his life. This movie isn’t about the “black experience.” Instead, it uses jazz and soul to tell a story that transcends race.
But unlike many modern animated movies, there’s much more here for adults to chew on and contemplate. It really feels like director Pete Docter, who is known to hit it out of the park with the likes of “Up” and “Inside Out,” set out to create a kids’ animated film that spoke more to the parents of those children. It works, and often brilliantly so. “Soul” serves as a message for many — especially millennials — that there is a fine line between holding onto your dreams and forgetting to live life in the process.
“Soul” is now available to stream on Disney+.