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<em>Soul</em> gets life right

(Disney/Pixar)

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Soul gets life right

Pixar’s latest may be a bigger hit with adults than kids

There was never any question that families were going to rush to stream Pixar’s latest release when it debuted on Disney+ on Christmas Day. But I have a hunch that, worthwhile as it is as an artistic exercise, Soul won’t be on constant repeat in minivans across the country. 

Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a middle-school band teacher still holding on to dreams of jazz greatness. But after years of having the door slammed in his face, he’s on the verge of settling for what he considers a mediocre life. That’s the moment his big break finally comes—a musical legend invites him to play piano with her quartet.

Disney/Pixar

(Disney/Pixar)

A moment after that he crosses paths with an even bigger break, a mortal break. He falls down a manhole and wakes to find himself on the stairway to heaven, though here it’s more like an escalator to a blinding white light manned by a team of “administrators” who look something like cubist scribbles. Unwilling to give up the ghost on his earthly aspirations, Joe makes a detour in his journey to the Great Beyond and winds up in the Great Before, a holding station where souls who have yet to be born prepare for life on Earth. There, Joe is tasked with mentoring a frightened soul named 22 (Tina Fey) who has been avoiding her turn at life for ­millennia. 

Writer/director Pete Docter is a professing Christian, but he seems to have taken pains not to include Biblical signposts in his highly existential story. There’s no mention of God, only a passing mention of heaven and hell, and there’s nothing angelic about the administrators. But that doesn’t mean the film is bereft of any religious references. Before Joe and 22 take a journey to Earth where cross-species body-swapping hijinks ensue, the film leans heavily on New Age references. To help find a loophole in the afterlife system, Joe and 22 seek a group of psychedelic pirates who all practice various forms of Eastern meditation (though the movie does poke fun at this idea a bit as the captain of the hippy-trippy band gets into an out-of-body state by twirling signs on the corner).

Disney/Pixar

(Disney/Pixar)

Perhaps Docter felt that, as his story plays with ideas that aren’t exactly doctrinally sound in order to explore deep themes, it would be better not to bring in specific elements from Christianity. Still, believing parents may not want to muddy little minds with the alternate wells he draws from.

That said, Docter does use his brightly colored, metaphysical version of It’s a Wonderful Life to a good end. The movie doesn’t just avoid the “pursue your dream at all costs” message we typically get from kids’ entertainment. It positively rebukes it. The plot also builds to a deeply pro-life ethic. Joe ultimately learns that each life is valuable not because it offers some utilitarian purpose or because a person pursued some meaningful passion. People may live their whole lives having done nothing particularly noteworthy; they may have even suffered. Life is valuable because it’s life.

Still, given that the film centers on a middle-aged man and a Liz Lemon–style neurotic, it doesn’t seem likely to hold great appeal to viewers who can’t even imagine a midlife crisis as a distant dot on the horizon. But maybe Soul will be a hit with today’s little ones once they reach their 20s.