As the calendar turned to a new year, celebrations ensued, resolutions were made and for the first time in months there seemed to be a collective joy. Some folks had massive accomplishments to extol, from weddings to new jobs, but for most the relief was far simpler. We had all been through so much in 2020 that just making it through to New Years Day felt like an achievement all on its own.
In the closing days of last year and the early ones of this, no recent film has permeated my thinking more so than Soul. As I map out goals for the coming months and contemplate what I’d like my life to look like when the world re-opens, I find my mind replaying moments of Pixar’s latest film. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise that this movie got pushed to a December release.
Soul — Pete Docter’s equally existential follow up to Inside Out — is the story of Joe Gardner (Jaime Foxx), a middle aged band teacher whose dream of being a jazz pianist appears to drift farther from reach with each passing day. Joe is so convinced he was born to play music that he’s let that purpose sever his connections to family and friends.
The thing is though, Joe really does have the goods. When he does finally get his shot, an audition with a legendary jazz quartet, he gives the performance of a lifetime and finally arrives on the precipice of living a dream he’s carried his entire life. That euphoria lasts only a brief moment. Just minutes later Joe’s body falls through an open manhole cover and his now untethered soul crash lands on an ethereal escalator ascending toward, what is delicately termed, “The Great Beyond.”
For those souls still nested in their bodies, New Years tends to be a time for reflection on the successes or failures past. Folks all over the world resolve to direct more energy into accomplishing lifelong goals or make quantifiable progress on what they deem important. Unless you’re Taylor Swift, 2020 was likely a year of stalled progress or even resolutions that went unfulfilled entirely, I know it was for me. Soul has me reconsidering that.
Joe isn’t ready to die. Not at the very moment when the peak of his mountainous ambition is finally within view. He leaps from the conveyor belt beckoning him to whatever awaits beyond life and somehow loops all the way around to whatever comes before. In this “Great Before” Joe meets and is expected to mentor young soul 22 (Tina Fey) in preparation for life on Earth, to help them find their purpose.
Together the souls — one refusing to move on from living, the other refusing to even begin — embark on a zany adventure the likes of which only Pixar can create. As they scour the halls of The Great Before and the streets of a vibrant New York City in search of 22’s purpose, Joe gets an outsider's look at his own life. He sees the friends he’s never allowed to be close to him, the students whose inspiration he’s never been interested in stoking and the moments of “plain old living” he’s always taken for granted.
Despite seeing the other side of life, Joe is still steadfast in his determination to make it as a jazz pianist when he does get back to his body. Seizing his chance, he plays a tremendous, seemingly life affirming set. When the euphoric music finally fades, stage lights dimmed and a satisfied crowd long since shuffled out, all that’s left is Joe, alone on a sidewalk that felt so filled with hope just hours before, feeling empty. His greatest wish fulfilled, he’s left to wrangle with what his life will be now that he’s achieved everything he thought he wanted.
As I look back on 2020, in all it’s misery and and missed potential, I am going to make an effort to see the good it brought. I’ll remember the new friends I made and old ones I connected with in new ways. I’ll take great pride in the few stories and reviews I did write and the podcasts Cody and I put out. I’ll cherish the films I got to see in theaters and the hockey games I got to play before the world shut down. Even in a pandemic altered world there have been moments of hope and inspiration, both interior and exterior.
Unaccomplished goals aren’t failures, just as small moments of contentment are worth celebrating. Getting through a year as difficult as the one we just had is monumental in and of itself. Who you are is more than just what you do or don’t do. People are defined intrinsically so try not to get too caught up in the rat race.
That’s the lesson I’ll be taking from Soul into the New Year. 2021 looks to be an improvement on its predecessor, but we know it’ll bring it’s own set of challenges. I’ll still make my resolutions, but I won't berate myself if I come up short. I’ll still aspire for more without letting it consume me. When Joe gets a second shot at life, he vows to enjoy every second of it. So too should all of us. We only get one shot at this thing so let’s savor every moment. 9/10
Soul is available to stream right now on Disney+