Soul is Pixar’s latest film, and as always, Pixar gets deep. Soul follows the story of a middle school band teacher who lives and breathes jazz music. He dreams of living the life of a great jazz musician, but just when he gets a once in a lifetime opportunity, he becomes separated from his soul. At its core, Soul is about purpose, about meaning of life, and about gratitude. It encourages viewers to fall in love with the little things, even when your dreams might be out of reach.
A double entendre, the title Soul refers both to the jazz-influenced music genre that originated in Black communities in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as to the spiritual essence of a living being. Together, both of these meanings drive the film. We meet our protagonist, Joe Gardner, as he’s leading middle school band practice, looking drained and hopeless. We soon discover that, despite his immense love jazz, he has been met with rejection after rejection in his efforts to make performing his career. Then, out of the blue, Joe gets the opportunity to perform with a famous jazz saxophonist. Joe is over the moon and literally starts dancing in the streets.
All of a sudden, the screen goes black. We learn that Joe is gravely injured and unconscious, and the film takes a deep dive into philosophy as we now meet Joe’s soul. Pixar has a way of creating spaces that blur the line between reality and imagination, using playful imagery to approach topics that border the solemn and ominous. Here, we experience this space with Joe as he realizes, in a panic, that he’s nearing the Great Beyond. Yep, Pixar really just made a movie about life and death for 8-year-olds.
Throughout the rest of the film, Joe tries desperately to get back in his body on Earth, and along the way, he meets characters and gains perspectives that completely change the way he thinks about his life. Through Joe’s eyes, we rediscover beauty in the “normal,” even the monotonous, parts of life. Just as Soul instills a deep sense of gratitude in its protagonist, it encourages its viewers to live in the present; to notice the magic of a leaf falling from a tree and to savor the flavor of a good meal.
Soul demonstrates a transformation in Pixar that has unfolded over the course of my lifetime. It’s gone from talking monsters to introspective questions of purpose and gratitude. This film is also notable because it’s Pixar’s first that centers a Black character, and portrayals of Black culture and Black joy have been largely absent from Disney.
One of the most interesting things about this film is that the climax isn’t where you think it’s going to be. Joe gets what he wants well before the movie ends, so we don’t get that big Hollywood finish of everything falling into place. Instead, we’re left with a sense of uncertainty about Joe’s future. In the closing moments, he’s just a normal guy. The thing he wanted most doesn’t make him happy. Joe realizes that the only cure for his ever-present ennui is to fall in love with all parts of his life, from his treasured jazz music to the rumble of the subway. I truly am walking away from Soul with a renewed sense of appreciation for the little things.