In Disney/Pixar’s Soul, Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey make it a breeze for any parent struggling to explain to their kids such heavy topics as the meaning of life and what it means to have a soul.
“Pixar always strives to reach into big topics in a way that most family films don’t,” says Tina Fey. “With Soul, we’re able to explore the idea of personality and spirit and purpose in life through the eyes of relatable, funny characters in really bizarre environments that are hysterically funny. It’s a brand of creative comedy you just won’t find anywhere else.”
Pixar’s 23rd film and the first to feature a black lead, with Jamie Foxx voicing the animated film’s main character, Joe Gardner, Soul arrives at a pivotal time for America’s Black Lives Matter movement.
Yes, it could be viewed as a cynical afterthought on behalf of Pixar’s parent company, Disney, but actually no. Given the painstaking time it takes to produce an animated film, Soul was in the works at least a year prior to the horrific death of George Floyd and the awakening of a nation, fortified by a pandemic and a call to end racial injustice.
Soul just happens to land at a fortuitous moment, carrying a timely message of rebirth – its title both an homage to soul and jazz and also the soul we trust is within us all.
“What is it that makes you…YOU?” asks the film, which introduces Joe Gardner (Foxx), a middle-school band teacher with a passion for jazz.
“Joe wants more than anything to become a professional jazz pianist,” says co-director Pete Docter. “So, when he’s offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play with one of the greats, Joe feels he’s reached the top of the mountain.”
Unfortunately, things don’t go to plan and one small misstep takes him from the streets of New York to The Great Before – a fantastical place where new souls acquire a personality, quirks and interests prior to heading to Earth.
“In our story, everyone is born with a soul,” explains Docter. “And those souls don’t just show up unprepared, they’re trained and given personality and interests.”
When Joe lands in this new dimension, he doesn’t feel like he belongs in this land of new souls. Determined to return to his life, he teams up with a precocious soul, 22 (Fey), who has never understood the appeal of the human experience.
As a white guy, whose Pixar credits include Up, Monsters, Inc., Inside Out and WALL•E, Docter knew he could never truly tackle this story without help, enlisting African American playwright Kemp Powers as both co-writer and co-director.
Picking up the reins of the story, Powers tell us, “Sometimes souls have a little trouble finding that special spark to earn their way to Earth. The Counselors at The Great Before call on mentors to help inspire these souls – extraordinary historical people like Abraham Lincoln.
“This has worked for every single soul except 22, who’s a bit like a petulant pre-teen, who has no desire to go to Earth,” says Powers, who also wrote the stage play and subsequent screenplay for Regina King’s One Night in Miami.
Asked to describe his character, Foxx says, “Joe is an ex-jazz musician turned school teacher who still dreams that one day he will have that opportunity to become an incredible jazz musician. But when he gets that opportunity, things go a little awry so, in Pixar fashion, we go on a journey of finding out where souls come from.”
Foxx’s own young daughter proved his greatest cheerleader in this role.
”She was 10 when she found out I was going to be a Pixar character and said, ‘Dad, you made it, you’re finally famous,” laughs the Oscar-winner. “And she was right because being in a Disney/Pixar film is something, as an actor, you always hope to get that opportunity and also to get to be the first African American lead in a Pixar film – that’s a high mark.”
The experience, he says, was inspiring: “I was always a glass-half-full type of guy, but this film filled my glass to the rim with optimism and to enjoy the moment.
“We’re in a challenging time when it comes to humanity, so holding on to our joy is very important and this film is a beautiful gift which allows us to reach for the joy in all of us, because it’s so desperately needed,” says Foxx, whose voice co-stars include Angela Bassett, Graham Norton, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Phylicia Rashad and New Zealand’s own Rachel House.
Fey agrees. “Joe’s journey is a real reminder that your life is taking place every day; it’s not something that you’re gonna get to once you’re finally ready; or once you finally get some external confirmation that you’ve made it. So, it’s a beautiful reminder, especially during this crazy year, to just try to take in every moment of your day – quiet moments, simple experiences and let that bring you as much joy in life as great success,” she says.
Fey believes the message is timely. “Joe is a guy who has a specific plan which unexpectedly gets put on pause and I think that happened to all of us in experiencing this pandemic. And this pausing of his planned life forces him to reevaluate what’s important to him and what it really means to live a purposeful life.
“I think that’s what we’ve all been doing this whole year and that’s why this story will hopefully be really cathartic for people, reminding us of how lucky we are to be alive and how beautiful life is.”