My kids are nearly grown up now, but I’ve been imagining what their questions would have been about Soul, had we watched it together when they were small. That we did watch it together, even though they are 16 and 20, is testament to this movie’s appeal for all ages. Soul, Pixar’s first film with a Black lead and a nearly all Black cast, explores big metaphysical questions of meaning and our existence on earth. It will surely collect a bevy of awards this award season, but somehow it left us wanting more, spiritually and in terms of the main character’s story.
Joe, voiced by Jamie Foxx, is a middle school band teacher who basically likes being a middle school band teacher, though he dreams of being a renowned jazz musician. (Our 23-year-old son is going to school to become a music teacher, and his minor is jazz guitar, so we were hooked.) What does Joe want more than anything? To find his purpose in life and to figure out the age-old question of whether he should be practical or shoot for the moon and use all his energy to try and make it in the jazz world.
This movie is a treat for music lovers, as jazz infuses nearly every scene. Jon Batiste’s glorious piano compositions weave in and out like a golden thread.
When Joe gets a big chance from an old student—an invitation to play with a legendary jazz singer—he wonders if this is it, the break he has been looking for. But as he bebops down the street, aglow with anticipation, he falls down a manhole and dies. Sort of. Transported to The Great Beyond, Joe is not ready to stop living yet, and he ends up in The Great Before, an iridescent, candy-colored zone of amorphous blobs—preborn souls—waiting to take shape as humans. Here he is assigned a mentee, 22 (Tina Fey), who has no desire to become human as she lacks any kind of spark or purpose.
Watching as a mom, I wondered how littles ones would interpret all of this nebulous business. I hoped that the young moms and dads out there would treat this movie and its grand questions the way my dad treated Star Wars and The Force—patiently and non-judgmentally explaining how our Christian worldview is the same and also very different. It’s a great chance for Christian parents to explain that we don't know everything about the afterlife or the pre-life, for that matter, but we are born in God’s timing and his love. Heaven will be beyond our wildest dreams, a far cry from the strange and oddly boring depictions of “The Great Before.” And we all have God-given purpose and gifts, like Joe. In fact, I wished that most of the movie would have focused on Joe and his wonderful world—of students who sometimes do hit the right notes, of conviviality and community at the barbershop, and the joy of playing music. His life on earth, animated in gorgeous detail, was the most interesting part of the movie by far. When the credits rolled, I wanted to know much more about this fetching gent, a winsome and intriguing character.
In the end, the movie reminds us all to chase our dreams but balance that with finding contentment in the sacred beauty of our everyday lives. What does it mean to find Heaven on earth? Viewers will be left contemplating that for some time to come. (Pixar)
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