I was hoping Pixar wouldn’t make me cry again, but I was wrong.
I’ve always been the one who cries during cartoon films. Toy Story 3? Been there, done that. Inside Out? “I should be feeling sadness too.” I went through an entire tissue box that night.
When “Soul” popped up on my Facebook feed, I expected nothing other than a colorful, cute, heartfelt, feel-good movie. “Soul” delivered, but it also opened my eyes to a painful realization: humans often expect way too much from the life they live. And it only took one character to show me that: Joe, the middle school band teacher.
The movie starts with lead character Joe Wagner (Jamie Foxx) conducting a disjointed, out-of-tune, middle school band. Definitely not his ideal situation — and certainly not his dream job. He’d much rather be the star of the show at a big-time jazz club. Soon after, Joe’s invited to play piano with famed saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) in downtown New York City. His students can wait, and Joe’s already out on the town, dancing around, preparing for his big debut. That is, until he falls to his death — literally.
After falling into a manhole on his way home, Joe wakes up to himself as a blue blob in an afterlife-esque world. “You’re on your way to the “Great Beyond,” another blob tells him. But Joe can’t deal. “I’m not dying the very day I have my shot,” he yells to his new compadres.
Dead people, now souls, are waiting in line for the afterlife. Well done, Pixar, for explaining exactly how death works to your young viewers. Joe immediately starts running backwards, straight into the world of newly born souls, creatively called “The Great Before.” Joe is invited — or better put, obligated — to help a soul find its passion before heading to earth. Sure enough, he’s assigned to the most difficult soul in the system: Number 22 (Tina Fey).
She’s a complainer, feisty, and entirely disinterested in finding her passion. “I already know everything about earth and it’s not worth the trouble,” she sighs. “I’m comfortable up here, I have my routine, I float in mist.”
Joe’s not convinced, and in his mind, if he gets her to earth, he can tag along and achieve his lifelong dream of becoming a world-renowned jazz pianist. To his own demise (though he doesn’t realize it at first) they plunge down to earth — but instead, 22’s soul falls into Joe’s body and Joe’s soul is trapped in his cat. At least he’s back on earth, though, and there’s hardly any time to spare before he’s on stage with Dorothea.
22 is scared, but it’s refreshing to watch. Her experience resembles the wonder of a child, constantly amazed by how earth works. She’s overwhelmed by the taste of a slice of pizza. We see her listen to a subway musician for the first time, and to show her appreciation, she drops a bagel half in his guitar case. She doesn’t know currency, but she does know gratitude.
The moments continue. She lays on a dirty sidewalk grate and swings on the metal handholds of the subway. More importantly, Joe watches himself enjoy life in a way he hadn’t before.
The aesthetic of the film captures this simplicity, too. New York isn’t portrayed as the glamorous NYC you see in most movies. You can see the muck of the city throughout the film. Dead leaves fall along the sidewalk, and trash lies in the streets. But it’s on these very streets that 22 finds the joys of life. And by the way, if you’re a sucker for jazz, this soundtrack will carry you through each scene like a fresh spring breeze.
Then 22 delivers perhaps the most striking line in the film: “Maybe sky watching can be my spark! Or walking, I’m really good at walking! What about sky watching?” to which Joe responds, “Those really aren’t purposes, 22, that’s just regular old living.”
But when Joe finally makes it on stage for his jazz debut, and even performs his best, the audience can’t help but see his emptiness. Sometimes, even achieving your lifelong dream won’t fulfill you. It was, he realizes, the “regular, old living” that made his life meaningful.
At the end of the film, Joe — now back in his own body — pulls out the trinkets 22 collected. A spool of thread that his mom used to fix up his suit, a crust of pizza, half a bagel, a metro ticket, and a lollipop from the hair salon. All objects we throw in the trash, but ones which 22 was quick to savor. Tears flood his face as he recalls the moments that meant the most to him: Watching the fireworks on his own, playing the piano with his mom, biting into a piece of pie. This is the life Joe was missing.
There really was no bad guy in this film, other than Joe’s inability to recognize the glory of basic life. It’s a reminder for those of us who fervently chase the “big things” and think “if only I have that, I will be happy.”
When I graduated high school, one of my teachers came up to me and said, “So what’s next for you? Not undergrad plans. The important stuff, like your summer.” I take it that’s what director Docter wanted Joe to answer. By the end of the movie, it wasn’t his next jazz debut he was looking forward to, it was time spent savoring the simple things.
Sure, the movie may be more realistic than what most viewers want in a cartoon. But films should be about more than just entertainment — they should make you think and feel, too.