In a pivotal scene in the new Pixar animated feature film, “Soul,” reluctant music teacher Joe Gardner finally gets the break of his dream career as a jazz pianist: the opportunity to play a gig with big-name band leader Dorothea Williams.
But shortly after Joe (Jamie Foxx) receives the good news, he trips into a manhole on the street and becomes comatose. He wakes up as a cute blob of a soul, slowly inching up the escalator to the Great Beyond of life. But Joe refuses this fate, and the movie follows his metaphysical quest to get his soul back into his body in time for the show.
“I’m not dying today, not when my life just started!” decides Joe, who is already 46 years old.
Despite many cosmic delays and hijinks, Joe gets to the performance venue in time and plays in sync with the band, gaining Dorothea’s approval. Eyes wide open in astonishment, he receives a standing ovation with his mother in the crowd. It’s the recognition of his peers and loved ones he always wanted, but the movie does not end there: Outside the venue, while waiting for a taxi, Joe tentatively asks Dorothea, “So, uh, what happens next?”
“We come back tomorrow night, and do it all again,” Dorothea tells him. Joe’s dream job has finally become real. But, he confesses to Dorothea, “I thought I’d feel differently.”
This is the career lesson “Soul” imparts to those of us who put our lives on hold for that dream opportunity: If you tie your idea of success to a single benchmark or to someone else’s standard of career accomplishment, you will never experience satisfaction. The film challenges Joe’s all-or-nothing thinking by showing what happens when we tie of all of who we are to what we can do.
Co-director Pete Docter said Joe’s story was inspired by his own mid-life crisis after the success of 2015′s Oscar-winning film “Inside Out.”
“It did well and we got some awards and all this,” Docter said. “And then I was like, ‘Now what?’ Is this really what I’m supposed to do?’ That didn’t satisfy me in the way that I was expecting.”
“Soul” makes the case for the joy of “regular old living” over flashy jobs or big moments.
Joe believes his purpose in life is to play jazz, and he neglects his relationships to his community in this pursuit. It reminds me of a lesson the late writer Toni Morrison, in a New Yorker essay, described learning from her father, a lesson Joe has yet to learn: “Your real life is with us, your family... You are not the work you do; you are the person you are.”
Joe, in a pointed exchange with Dez, his longtime barber, wonders why the two of them never talk about Dez’s personal life and only ever discuss jazz. “You never ask,” Dez replies.
It’s clear that Joe values himself only as a jazz player, and as a result he puts people like Dez into limiting boxes, too. He only starts expanding his expectations of people after a different soul ― number 22 ― enters his body and asks Dez about his life.
This is the cosmic twist of the movie. To get his own soul back into his body, Joe must mentor soul 22 (Tina Fey), who does not see the point in living, so that they can find their spark on Earth and be born. Through a mishap, 22 ends up in Joe’s body and Joe ends up in a therapy cat. Mismatched duos are the comedic formula that propel Pixar movies forward, but I found the accidental soul swap to be a disappointing path for Joe’s enlightenment.
“Soul” is Pixar’s first film with a Black protagonist, but Joe spends a significant portion of the movie trapped in the body of a cat, while 22 takes over Joe’s body, sometimes against his will. Transforming characters of color into creatures is a tired trope in animation that denies them their full humanity.
The most memorable scene of “Soul,” however, focuses on Joe’s internal struggle when he’s back in his own body. After Joe gets himself and his dream job back, he still experiences dissatisfaction, which suggests the spark of living has little to do with career identity. It’s here that “Soul” poses the existential question, “Who are we outside our ability to produce?”Joe initially assumes that a spark is one’s purpose and that his is playing the piano, which is what he’s good at.
“Maybe sky-watching can be my spark,” 22 tells Joe after experiencing the trials and joys of living in his body. “Or walking! I’m really good at walking!”
“Those really aren’t purposes, 22,” Joe replies. “That’s just regular old living.”
But after he achieves his life’s driving purpose, Joe realizes he is wrong about what a spark can be. After his conversation with Dorothea leaves him off-kilter, Joe returns home and plays piano just for himself. It’s in this zone that he remembers he’s got a whole vibrant life that he’s been discounting.
While he plays, Joe experiences flashbacks: his Mom bathing him as a baby; the sun on his face during a childhood bike ride; the first bite of pecan pie he savors by himself at a diner; the rewards of introducing his students to music; playing piano with his elderly dad, who shared his love of jazz; and watching the sunset through the window of a subway car.
None of these moments are tied to traditional markers of professional success like awards, fame or money. All of them have personal meaning. Joe’s eyes well up, and your eyes might tear up, too. It’s a devastating reminder that regular old living can be extraordinary after all.