A villainless film in ‘Soul’

Joe Gardner and 22 are on a journey to find life’s meaning. Press photo

By Wendell Gaa

While I didn’t personally find this new film by Pixar to be among its best — like “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo” or “The Incredibles” — it is a shining example of what the animation studio does so excellently well: Telling stories with relatable characters using innovative and compelling narratives. 

The film’s plot concerns an African-American elementary band music teacher in New York City by the name of Joe Gardner, who is aspiring to become a successful professional jazz musician.  Joe’s dreams seem to be within reach when he accidentally falls into an open manhole, and wakes up only to find himself as a “soul” which is being sent to the “Great Beyond.” 

Joe refuses to accept his fate of an “afterlife” in heaven given his life dedication to become a jazz musician, and while attempting to escape the “purgatory” realm he is at, he winds up in another realm called the “Great Before” where he meets “soul counselors” who are responsible for preparing “unborn souls” for a life on Earth. 

Disguising himself as an instructor designated to train the “unborn souls,” he is assigned one such soul named 22, who happens to have been residing in the “Great Before” for many years and frankly sees no purpose for her to live on Earth.  Joe expresses his true desire to 22 to return to Earth to fulfill his life’s purpose, and in return she reveals to Joe that she holds a special badge and that she is on a personal mission to find her “spark.” She enlists Joe’s help to find her “spark,” and Joe finds his way back to Earth.

A comedic mix-up occurs. 22 enters Joe’s body and Joe enters the body of a therapy cat. Their misadventures while being trapped in each other’s bodies become highly entertaining and enjoyable to watch throughout the rest of the movie’s running time.

Unlike Pixar’s earlier films, “Soul” addresses life issues and morals which are comparatively more complex. While initially I found this aspect of the movie to be a bit of a turnoff for very young children, I also saw this as a potential incentive for kids to think hard for themselves about the true message in finding one’s own true purpose and destiny in life. 

It is additionally noteworthy that in contrast to other Pixar and Disney films, “Soul” is also noticeably absent of a “villain” character.  As with 2019’s “Toy Story 4,” the obstacles and challenges which the protagonist faces are more circumstantial rather than tangible here.  I found this type of plot device to be a different type of storytelling which makes “Soul” stand out in a brilliantly good way. 

Oscar winner Jamie Foxx, who first catapulted himself into mainstream stardom as a cast member of the hugely popular 1990s comedy “In Living Color,” does a wonderful performance as the voice of Joe, who also happens to be Pixar’s first black protagonist character. 

“Saturday Night Live” alum Tina Fey likewise immerses herself into the role of 22 so very well. Her talent for mixing comedy with melodrama reflects marvelously in her animated counterpart. 

I am so pleased to know that two of our own FilAm animators at Pixar whom I got to personally meet were also part of the imaginative team behind “Soul,” Ronnie del Carmen and Ricky Nierva.  A bonus pleasure was seeing everyday New York life   captured so accurately by the animators. Neighborhoods from Manhattan to Queens, particularly the Roosevelt Ave. stretch, will definitely look familiar to native New Yorkers!

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© The FilAm

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