Pixar steps into cultural diversity with ‘Soul’

Lapacazo Sandoval | 12/31/2020, midnight
When I was a little girl, my father would ask me if I was happy with my choice of parents. ...
"Soul" Disney/Pixar

When I was a little girl, my father would ask me if I was happy with my choice of parents. Further, he explained that each soul chooses their life paths for a myriad of reasons. I was five years old.

From the mind of one of Pixar’s most gifted members, Pete Docter (“Inside Out,” “Up”), comes “Soul,” a charming, whimsical, musical film that takes a look at the biggest question that people have asked since the dawn of time: “What’s the meaning of life?”

“Soul” opens with the death of middle school band teacher Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), who loves the piano. After a brilliant audition, flying high on the vibrations of success, he nearly misses being crushed by careless construction workers, dodges being hit by an oncoming car, and then falls into a manhole.

Now playing on Disney Plus, “Soul” breaks many rules usually assigned to kid films, but it does so with the purpose of exploring issues surrounding mortality in a way that few films dare. It steps into the second biggest question of all time, which is what happens before and after people leave their bodies. Is there a heaven?

Funny how life was unfolding for old Joe: he had just landed an opportunity to play with jazz legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) at the Half Note club. This was his lifelong dream, the pinnacle of his success as a musician and Joe, well this man was gifted.

Imagine his surprise when he finds himself, sans a body, moving on a conveyor belt through the great unknown. A curious fellow, Joe falls off the escalator, falling through spiritual dimensions to a place called the Great Before where souls are preparing to go to Earth.

And what does a pre-corporeal soul look like? Well, this is Disney so it’s adorable, with luminous eyes and a pure glow. Here there are simple rules and each newbie soul is guided by mentors—those that have lived their lives with passion and who want, desperately, to help the next generation.

Once the new souls find their uniqueness, their spark, they are allowed to go to Earth where they are assigned to an infant body.

How is a personality formed, exactly? Here’s the theory. Some attributes are imprinted at the “You Seminar,” i.e. in the spiritual realm, while others are discovered by sincere guidance from the older, wiser souls.

Back to Joe. He wants to get back to the body which is hooked up to life support and, in this state, he’s mistaken for a mentor and automatically assigned to a “soul mate,” No. 22 (Tina Fey), a free-spirit with a rebel streak who’s been around for ages and perfectly happy to never experience life.

22 is a challenge. She loves the Great Before and, despite powerful mentors like Mother Theresa and Abraham Lincoln trying and failing, she’s never found her spark. The overseers (Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade and Wes Studi), each named Jerry, let Joe try and—what do you know—together they find a loophole that lands them both on earth.

Not to give away spoilers, Joe’s desire to get back to this jazz club, combined with 22’s desire not to be dragged along, combine and form into something unexpected. Now that she’s alive, 22 starts to enjoy the little things and realizes (finally) earth is not as bad as she imagined.

Joe, on earth, starts to learn about himself. Inside his favorite barbershop, he realizes that his love for music is really an obsession that has blocked his ability to make meaningful friendships. Who’s helped shape Joe into Joe? His tough-love mom Libba (Phylicia Rashad), and he also finds magic when he plays the piano drifting off into the zone, described by the mystic Moonwind, thusly: “When joy becomes an obsession, one becomes disconnected from life.”

Why center “Soul” on a predominantly Black cast? I’m cynical; it’s a marketing decision based on algorithms and hardcore financial data on the spending power of the African American and African global community.

Remember that Disney and Pixar are corporations. And Pixar has long been coined the boys club, and diversity and inclusion were never part of their history. So, I lean again into algorithms and hardcore financial data as the core motivation to stack “Soul” with color aka flavor.

“Soul” is a beautiful film blending together the best-of-the-best of Pixar magic.