Hobbies are funny things. As adults, we often come by them casually and with little sense of obligation. Maybe a friend convinces us to run a 5K with them and we find unexpected joy in running, or a quick search on our family tree evolves into a years-long project to trace our roots.
My adulthood hobbies never come close to the kind of hyper-focused pursuits I engaged in as a child. Gymnastics, tennis, horseback riding, soccer, clarinet, martial arts, guitar – I tried a little bit of everything for years, never getting particularly good at any of it, but constantly trying my luck just the same. It became routine: the concept was exhilarating, but eventually the dull sense of obligation would set in. Sooner or later the hobby would be abandoned, either because it wasn’t as exciting as I thought it’d be, or, just as often, because I wasn’t particularly good at it. I wasn’t first chair in clarinet; I didn’t make the high school soccer team. Sometimes you reject the hobby, and sometimes the hobby rejects you.
We grow up watching and reading stories about inspirational figures who were best-of-class in their respective fields, fetishizing the concept of being a natural-born prodigy. Some of us are lucky enough to grow up believing we could succeed in anything, which might be one of childhood’s most well-intentioned and harmful lies. In the real world, success is difficult to measure. Any traditional version of it requires a good deal of luck. Even then, most of us will never eclipse the realm of skilled competence to become truly exceptional. Those who do are just that: exceptions.
Soul might be one of the first children’s films that rejects the well-intentioned lie instead of perpetuating it. The latest offering from Disney’s Pixar Studios, Soul examines the existential intricacies of becoming an individual. Like its predecessor Inside Out, which examined the way children come to terms with their emotions, Soul creates an abstract fantasy world to illustrate the more mundane realities of how we come to grips with who we are. It’s a destination reached by way of a soul with no interest in life teaming up with another soul who can’t accept his life is over.
That soul that can’t let go of life is Joe (Jamie Foxx), a part-time music teacher who can’t commit to a full-time job for fear that it will ruin his chance at making it big as a jazz musician, his one true purpose. As luck would have it, Joe’s potential big break finally comes on the day he takes his last breath on Earth. When Joe realizes his life is over, he runs from his chance to ascend to The Great Beyond and ends up in an unexpected place: The Great Before. There he meets an unborn soul named 22 (Tina Fey) who doesn’t see the point in being born. The two team up to attempt a fake-out that will allow Joe to return to his life and 22 to avoid hers. What could go wrong?
When it comes to passions, hobbies, jobs, and the things we love that make us who we are, Soul examines both sides of the same coin. Everyone can relate to the idea of feeling lost or lacking purpose. But being exceptional and passionate about an interest isn’t the only healthy way to live. Early in the film, 22 shows Joe a group of zombie-looking people in The Great Before dubbed “lost souls” who have become so rooted in a particular skill or passion that they’ve lost all sense of joy. Soul is infused with this kind of practical and grounded approach in its message – a message that praises personal fulfillment, enrichment, and balance above all else. But its whimsical take on The Great Before and The Great Beyond are where the film gets abstract, vibrant, and playful. Maybe Heaven looks like a giant bug zapper. Maybe we get our personalities from higher beings that look like Picasso paintings.
Pixar films often manage to create a wholly relatable experience from a specific protagonist’s point of view, whether that point of view is from a child’s toy in Toy Story or a senior citizen in Up, but those feelings have long been anchored on white male characters. Co-written and co-directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers, Soul is long overdue by being the first of the more than 20 films Pixar has created to feature a Black lead, and is bolstered by a stellar supporting cast including Questlove, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, Angela Bassett, and Graham Norton.
Soul continues Pixar’s tradition of successfully translating a single person’s life or point of view into a feeling that is incredibly universal and at least a bit nostalgic. I was lucky to be able to try and fail at so many new things as a child, much like 22 does in her search for her Spark, but I suspect the feeling of searching for yourself – or losing yourself – in hobbies or passions is something that speaks to just about everyone. It also transcends childhood, stalking us into adulthood as we look for a major, career, life, or purpose. Soul perfectly captures that feeling, at both extremes, from looking for a purpose in life to being consumed by it.
Soul will be available streaming on Disney+ Dec. 25.