In the 1950s and ‘60s, Disney produced educational films that often helped teachers explain complex subjects. Math or science, for example, would be simplified thanks to the help of Donald Duck and Ludwig Von Drake.
Now, Disney's Pixar is picking up the mantle and using some of those techniques with more complex subjects – like emotions in “Inside Out” and, now, the afterlife in “Soul.”
While the latest production (which streams this week on Disney+) is more adult than you’d think, it does offer plenty of fodder for all members of the family, particularly when the delicate subject arises.
Through the eyes of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle school band teacher, we get to see what the afterlife might be like. He gets there after rushing to a dream gig as a musician with a jazz band.
Not looking where he’s going, Joe falls into an open manhole and, soon, he’s on his way to the Great Beyond. There mid-century modern souls (geometric souls) ride escalators, romp around and search for purpose. The Great Before – another nebulous concept – is where souls get their personality traits before they’re born. There, mentors help them find them.
Determined to avoid the Great Beyond, Joe pretends to be a mentor and gets 22 (Tina Fey), a real live wire who already exhausted other mentors. She doesn’t want to find her spark or live on Earth.
Director Pete Docter (who guided “Inside Out” and “Up”) isn’t afraid to tackle any of “Soul’s” questions.
Because he still harbors the desire to be a jazz musician, Joe takes 22 to Earth, hoping to still make his gig. Along the way, he visits spots he had earlier taken for granted. Docter’s team makes those little things resonate and helps us understand what the journey really is.
A cat named Mr. Mittens provides the cute factor and emerges as the must-have collectible from “Soul.”
Still, this is a film that doesn’t need an accompanying Happy Meal to sell. It goes deeper than any Pixar film before it and gets us to prioritize our lives. If any film was meant for a pandemic, this is it.
Fox and Fey do fine work (you won’t realize either of them are involved until you see the credits) and “The Late Show’s” Jon Batiste provides piano stylings that make you understand why Joe is so enamored with jazz.
Families looking for mindless entertainment won’t find it in “Soul.” There’s passion here and a lot of critical thinking. Your idea of an afterlife may not mesh with Docter’s but both are valid.
Above all, “Soul” adheres to the “stop and smell the roses” philosophy of life. Little moments count; big ones aren’t all that necessary.
After you’ve watched the film, go back to the beginning and notice Joe in the classroom. He’s making a difference, even though he doesn’t realize it. Docter reminds us later in the story. But, imagine what he might have done had he realized it earlier. Like Joe, we don’t take time for those moments when they’re happening.
The message in “Soul” packs a punch, largely because the film possesses a lot of heart.