A Parents’ Guide to Disney-Pixar’s “Soul”

The best movies not only shape new thinking but ultimately entertain us. They have an ability to transport us to another world, remove us from our everyday and remind us that life outside of the movie is as unique as the world on the big screen.

This idea of life is one that many of us may be pondering over the course of the past ten month as we balance the realities of COVID-19. As our everyday has been reimagined, life as we know it, has changed. However, within this place of change, we’re given time to pause and reflect on what makes us unique and what our spark is in life.

The “unique” is what Pixar has always done so well. From its genesis with Toy Story in 1995, Pixar’s genius is not so much it’s animation artistry (although it still remains the most gorgeous of all mainstream animation studios), but rather their ability to find the story in any aspect of life. Whether it be toys coming to life, a family of ants on a journey, or emotions forming a new understanding of themselves, the Pixar cannon is explores life’s unique wonderment.

With Soul, now available of Disney+, we’re introduced to Joe Gardner (voice of Jamie Foxx) – a middle-school band teacher who gets the chance of a lifetime to play at the best jazz club in town. But one small misstep takes him from the streets of New York City to The Great Before – a fantastical place where new souls get their personalities, quirks and interests before they go to Earth. Determined to return to his life, Joe teams up with a precocious soul, 22 (voice of Tina Fey), who has never understood the appeal of the human experience. As Joe desperately tries to show 22 what’s great about living, he may just discover the answers to some of life’s most important questions. (Disney +).

Watching this film with my own 10 and 7-year-old children was an emotional journey. In the past year, we’ve lost a dear family friend to COVID, two uncles and over the Christmas holidays a dearly beloved aunt (a family matriarch) passed away. Nonetheless, 2020 was filled with much sadness and thus my wife and I were hesitant to watch Soul with our children with its narrative grounded in life and death.

Regardless, we took the leap, made the popcorn, got couch comfy and found ourselves relishing in yet another heartfelt, touching and accessible story from Pixar. Afterwards we did what we normally do as a family: we talked about and decoded the movie.

So, here’s a little cheat sheet for any parent or caring adult looking to watch Soul with their child/children.

As you get snack ready, have a conversation with your child/children about what excites them about life. This is a great opportunity to just open the door to conversation.

In our case, because of all of the recent sadness the kids were processing, we asked them to share memories of the loved ones we lost in 2020. They readily shared so many warm memories and asked provocative questions of their own about life, death and faith.

It was an emotional movie set up but needed in order to ground the context for the film, give us a 2020 cleanse and also to allow our kids to reflect and share what has been on their minds and in their hearts over the last little while. Although, such family dialogue has been ongoing, the lead into Soul gave us yet another opportunity to intentionally pause and chat.

Although, they really can’t stand it, my kids are use to my pausing a movie while we watch. Like when I was in the classroom teaching Communications Technology, I often pause asking for a summary of the narrative thus far, what could possibly unfold, ask if there are any questions about where we are in the story or share a bit of useless “making of” information. Since, I’m a major cinephile, we typically watch a movie more than once – eventually the pausing stops.

With Soul, it provides a unique opportunity to explore typical Pixar storytelling itself in regards to race and representation. Not only do we have a story about life, death, soul and the meaning of life, but the movie’s foundation is about an African-American man in love with Soul music as an expression of himself, connection to his musician father and a mode of cultural expression.

Importantly, Joe is a good man. He’s not the Black voodoo villain of The Princess and Frog, but rather a whole person with ambition, hope, fears and insecurities who inhabits an African-American neighbourhood that is uniquely bountiful and lived in; not ghettoized in any way.

Guiding Questions:

Think about all of the Pixar movies you’ve watched. What’s interesting about the character of Joe? How is he unique compared to other Pixar main characters?

Depending on the type of conversations you have at home with your children, they may make a connection to race. Like my children who often decode media texts and casually participate or actively listen to dinner table conversation about politics, race is an important connection to make when watching Soul.

Joe is Pixar’s first African-American main protagonist and how he is represented matters. Like shared already in this post, he’s a positive representation is so many ways.

For example, Joe is educated and is a respected teacher. This is quite evident from the onset of the movie when we are introduced to him in his classroom. He’s calm, patient and giving with the students which counters images or ideas about the aggressive Black male that litters cultural discourse. He’s beloved and is welcomed to the school community fold with a full-time teaching promotion.

Outside of the classroom, he’s equally warm and beloved. An example of this when his old student invites him to audition for the The Dorothy Williams Band. It’s clear that Joe had a positive relationship with the people in his life.

Further, Joe can be compared to the satirical Combat Carl from Pixar’s 2013 Halloween special Toy Story of Terror, he’s a totally formed Pixar character. Whereas Combat Carl was a comic spoof of Carl Weather’s action persona from the film Predator, Joe is a fully flushed lead character with a backstory and more. Perhaps, Joe lacks agency as some critics have shared. Regardless, we do grow to understand who he is. Part of Joe’s story is that he doesn’t fall into the trope of the fatherless black male. Instead, he yearns to follow in his father’s footsteps.

This may be quite a topic to unfold with your children. Nonetheless, to avoid Joe and his world is to lessen the impact of the film itself. This is not to say that the film is perfect in its representation or race. However, within the Pixar cannon, Joe is most certainly a progressive first step.

What does Joe learn from Soul, 22? Why is this important?

Your child/children may bring forward a number of answers that are all correct. When I watched the film with my children, it’s about enabling their imagination and sharing how they see life through their eyes.

Guiding the conversation, you can bring forward that Soul – 22 does inspire Joe to see the uniqueness in everyday life. Soul – 22 relishes in the small moments that Joe takes for granted. Like Pixar films that have the ability to find a story in just about anything, Soul, 22 finds spark in the everyday – walking, nature, the sky and more.

With this, Soul – 22 not only reminds Joe but all of us that life is the spark. Whereas Joe is singular in his obsession with being a musician throughout the film, he realizes that with his second chance at life he’s going to enjoy all things and broaden who he is and how he sees the world. He’s no longer just going to live for soul music but life itself.

Now that all of the decoding is out of the way, use the stay at home time as an opportunity to have your child/children create, share their life sparks.
This could be a vision board, a collage or at home show and tell. Or, you can use the following Soul “Dear Future Me” worksheet.

For more worksheets, click here:

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