Nearly every Disney movie in the last three decades has been welcomed at the box office with high acclaim. But Soul, Pixar’s newest computer-animated comedy about an aspiring Black jazz musician with an important life lesson to learn, will be held—at least in my mind—in a special league of its own.
I’d compare my anticipation for Soul, now available on Disney+, to my excitement surrounding Princess Tiana. In 2009, the New Orleans bred beauty with a wonderful heart and a big, bright smile broke ground as the first Black princess in the Disney franchise. Now, the animation studio, who in recent years brought us Coco and Kerry Washington as the voice of my favorite animated car, is delivering its first Black protagonist since the company’s founding.
Joe Gardner, voiced by award-winning actor Jamie Foxx, has an internal conflict most children won’t understand. Does he continue teaching music lessons at his Queens, New York public school, or does he abandon the security of a permanent position for an uncertain path as a jazz pianist? His mind (and his mother) may want him to seek stability, what Joe’s heart truly longs for is an exciting opportunity to tickle the keys.
Enter the sassy Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). On the same day Joe is presented with the option to go from part-time to full-time as his school’s band teacher, his former student Curley (Roots drummer Questlove) calls him with what could be a life-changing opportunity to play in Dorothea’s highly regarded band.
Joe’s big break is so close he can taste it, and then—a freak accident forces him to question it all. While the film’s youthful audience won’t get the internal struggle faced by this mid-life crisis, it may trigger a rudimentary conversation about living with meaning and purpose. The year 2020 has been marked by tragedy and defeat, but what Soul implores the young and old alike to do, is adopt an attitude of gratitude despite what may currently be.
Joe, much like myself and a multitude of creatives I know, struggles with drowning out the noise created by the ticking of a self-imposed (and sometimes parent-imposed) clock. I remember it was the dawn of 29 when my own internal commotion began. Sessions with my therapist, nor small victories within my field, could silence the sound. Instead, I just held onto a phrase my mom would often repeat as a child, “Nobody knows the minute or the hour when we’ll leave this earth.” Translation: Make each day count. When Joe falls down a man-hole after his successful audition with Dorothea, he learns just how important that sentiment is.
Helping to hammer home this point is Tina Fey as the voice of soul-in-limbo, 22. When the talented musician teams up with the rambunctious rebel, he begins to see his place on earth through a whole new lens.
The story, co-directed by American playwright and Pixar’s first Black co-director, Kemp Powers, forces viewers to ask ourselves if we are living our life with meaning and purpose each and every day. Joe realizes when he’s greeted in the great beyond that not having the opportunity to share his gift of music with the world would be the real tragedy in all of it. He can ditch and dodge death’s gatekeeper for so long, but ultimately it is a race to avoid the unavoidable.
There will be some who dismiss the animated film as simply a child’s flick. I beg you not to. Soul is a rich story for all ages with an important reminder to live each day to the fullest.
Tanya Christian is a writer and editor based in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @tanyaachristian.