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Pick of the month: Pixar’s Soul

Spoiler warning

As a society, I think most of us need to spend some quality time to get to know our souls. A soul is an essence that makes you you. Although there are so many different interpretations of a soul, Pixar’s interpretation of a soul is a rounded blue being that vaguely resembles his or her human selves. The beauty of Pixar’s Soul is how it compels the viewer to consider the ephemeral quality of life. We are here, alive, and at a moment’s notice, we might not be.

Many of the Pixar movies are deep for adults, not just entertaining for kids. As a parent, I certainly appreciate children’s programming that lends a mature layer of content for parent viewers. In this sense, Soul did not disappoint. It is layered with meaning after meaning, an onion of an animated feature.

The outer layer, the one geared primarily for children, has a basic storyline. Joe Gardner gets his big break, but then dies (sort of). His physical body is in coma limbo while his soul gets trapped in between two worlds: the Great Beyond and the Great Before. He is mistaken for a mentor to budding souls and, like a teacher, he’s assigned to help this particularly challenging student (named 22) find her spark before she can be the soul of a newly born person. Although this is deep in it of itself, it’s presented in a cartoony way that is understandable enough for young viewers. 22 and Joe Gardner end up back on earth, with 22 inhabiting Joe’s body while Joe’s soul inhabits the body of a therapy-cat. I could go with the basics of the plotline, but on this level, the plot is essentially what happens. This happened, then that, then some more stuff.

On a deeper level, the one that can leave parents mulling over their career choices, I think Soul evokes internal debate about following a passionate dream versus following the safe path. Middle school band teacher, Joe Gardner, has dreamed of being a jazz musician since the day his father introduced him to his first jazz concert. He found his passion, his zone, his love, dancing his fingers across the keys of a piano. Life happens and the occasional gig over Joe’s professional life fails to lead to his success in the world of jazz. His big break with jazz legend Dorothea Williams is cut short because of his literal misstep into an open manhole. This level hit me particularly deeply. I was a middle and high school teacher for nearly ten years. That was my safe choice. My dream, which I’m slowly pursuing, is to be a published and successful author. Don’t get me wrong, I loved teaching. I miss teaching, too, and Joe Gardner loved those moments like with his student Connie when she gets in the zone playing her trombone. His passion, even in the classroom, was music. My passion, even in the classroom, was literature.

It also begs the question: do we mistake our big breaks in life with life? For Joe Gardner, he barely made it, but he did fulfill his lifelong dream. Yet, once there, he still felt this hollow sense of “what’s next?” I think the conversation he shared with Dorothea Williams after the big gig truly hit the depth of his discontent. She said, “I heard this story about a fish. He swims up to this older fish, and say, ‘I’m trying to find this thing they call the ocean.’ ‘The ocean?’ says the older fish. ‘That’s what you’re in right now.’ ‘This?’ says the young fish. ‘This is water. What I want is the ocean.’”

Now, at the deepest level, Soul spurred an online backlash for several reasons related to race relations. In many ways, I could see how some elements of the movie could hit a nerve. In all honesty, I almost chose a different pick-of-the-month for January, fearing that picking this movie would spur dissension. That is certainly not my intention, but I bring this up because one of the underlying issues that fueled Black Lives Matter was a long American history of racial groups failing to consider each other’s perspective, specifically white America failing to recognize the daily struggles and micro aggressions experienced by many minorities, especially African Americans. I have spent too many years avoiding difficult conversations because they are simply uncomfortable. 2020 brought up so many societal wounds within our nation. Healing can only come from the conversation and listening to the experiences of others, even if the conversation is uncomfortable or controversial.

Even though this is Pixar’s first animated movie featuring an African American lead, voiced by Jaime Foxx, and it strove to include elements of the black community such as the barbershop scene, there were choices made that failed to consider cultural sensitivity. For instance, the scene involving an African American man who was confused for Joe Gardner by a police officer was deeply insensitive because there are countless mistaken arrests of black people, like the tragic story of Kalief Browder. Then there was the controversy over casting Tina Fey as 22. Although I’ve always been a fan of Tina Fey’s work (for a memoir that will leave you laughing hard enough to cry, check out Bossypants), I think casting her created more of a distraction from what her character intended to portray. Tiffany Haddish would have been a better fit or at least one that would steer away from controversy.

I chose this movie because I believe that despite any of its controversy, the underlying premise holds deep and true to the viewer. Life is short. Don’t take it for granted. Find your soul and embrace life.

Happy New Year.


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