by Michael Young | May 21, 2021
7 min read
Movie poster for "Soul"
Source: Pixar Animated Studios

Editor’s Note: This Disney/Pixar Animation Studios film won the 2020 Oscar for Best Animated Feature and for the Best Original Score. It was also nominated for Best Sound. Available on Disney+ and Netflix DVD and to buy/rent ($19.99) on Apple TV+, YouTube, Vudu, Google Play and Amazon Prime Video

Demographers estimate more than 108 billion human beings have inhabited the earth since we became something recognizable as human. That number (it’s actually 108,210,121,415) figures in this movie and, I’m guessing, that will surprise you a bit. What does the number of human beings that have populated this planet have to do with a movie about jazz?

If you are as naive as I was, you will begin watching “Soul” with the notion that it has something to do with uniquely American musical genre of jazz and maybe its origins in our rich Black cultural history.  You will probably expect lots of references to New Orleans and Southern history and the oppression of slavery. Throw in quotes from jazz greats like Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane and Billie Holiday, and what you’ll get is a good appreciation for the rich background and straightforward beauty of jazz. I was looking forward to that kind of experience, although I wasn’t quite sure how the creator of “Soul,” Pixar Animated Studios, was going to pull off the documentary I was envisioning in an animated feature.

If you are as unsuspecting of the true nature of this movie as I was, then you are in for a real surprise and, I think, an extremely pleasant one. “Soul” strikes amazingly thoughtful chords as it extends its exploration of jazz into the realm of the unknown and—yes—soulful. Once again, Pixar, a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company, has given us a nearly perfect work of art and an unforgettable viewing experience.

About half of the movie has to do with the musical form of jazz. The story centers on Joe (Jamie Foxx), a musician living not in New Orleans, but in New York. He has a job teaching middle school band students. However, being a teacher isn’t his real passion. Joe dreams of playing jazz piano in nightclubs. Early in the movie he gets a break, and it appears that his dreams are about to come true.

Except they don’t. As is the case with most of us, something happens to Joe that changes his life trajectory. And with that development, we end up in the other half of the movie: The Great Beyond, The Great Before and The Zone. The great pleasures of this movie are here—in domains that probably can only be explored in an animated film. Here we aren’t dealing with people, but rather their essence, their “souls.” This movie, quite literally, explores notions of where souls come from, where they go, and what, exactly, humans might do with their souls while they are alive. These questions aren’t trivialized; there is substantial food for thought here, or should I say nourishment of the soul!

The Great Beyond, as envisioned in the animated feature"Soul"
The great pleasures of this movie are its depiction of domains—The Great Beyond, The Great Before, The Zone—that probably can only be explored in an animated film. Source: Pixar Animated Studios

The film navigates back and forth between these two worlds with great finesse. Joe’s earthly province is rich in detail and visceral experiences. (One critic argued that this depiction of the New York urban scene is the best ever, at least in an animated feature.) This section of the movie features the terrific jazz music of Jon Batiste, an accomplished keyboardist, originally from Louisiana, but now ensconced in New York.

Joe is a Black man and, as such, represents the first time Pixar/Disney has attempted, realistically, to depict Black people in animated form. The animators, who skillfully portray Black skin textures and colors, have added several appealing new characters to Disney’s animation stable.

When Joe is in the “otherworld,” he is recognizably himself, but adopts a visage befitting a member of the “soul” community. It is pretty hard to quibble with his appearance—I mean, what exactly does a “soul” look like, anyway?  The animation in this section of the movie is simpler and executed in pastel colors or black and white, and why not? The richness here is not in the visual presentation, but in the strange concoction of processes that souls undergo as they transition from one stage to another.

The other distinguishing characteristic of the Great Beyond and Before is the accompanying soundtrack. Instead of Jon Batiste’s jazzy improvs, we get the electronic music of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (who received two Academy Award nominations for 2020’s Best Original Score for “Soul” and “Mank” and who won for “Soul”). The ethereal and cerebral tone of their work is so soothing that it is difficult to imagine a better choice to represent the otherworld.

The preparation of souls for their adventure on Earth is particularly interesting—especially when two souls end up in bodies they weren’t intended to occupy. In addition to Joe’s soul, there is also Soul 22 (Tina Fey), who has a wonderful line: “You can’t crush a soul here.  That’s what life on Earth is for.”

Since souls are numbered, imagine how long that Fey’s has been waiting for her “spark” to be matched with a body. When 22 and Joe finally do get to Earth, the resulting “switched identity” sequence goes on a bit too long, but is a key part of the film’s message, which I will leave to you to discover.

I’ve been a Pixar fan for many years now, and their annual release almost always ends up in my Top Four or Five movies of the year. I can’t emphasize enough that “animated feature” does not mean “kids” movie. I began to appreciate the difference about a decade ago when I watched “Up,” an animated feature that focused on an elderly man who has lost his wife and, through the magic of cartooning, manages to lift his house into the air and fly to South America for some adventures. Sure, the movie had some kid appeal, but it was also about how older folks deal with loneliness and mortality. (Although I’ve never been able to actually levitate my house and go on the road, I did buy an RV trailer a few years later. . . .)

Pete Docter, Pixar’s chief creative director and the person most responsible for the writing and directing of this movie, has been with the studio for years and also spearheaded the development of another seminally important animated feature, “Inside Out.” That film explored the role of emotions and especially the value of sadness as part of the human experience. While it was ostensibly a film for children, it resonated well with adults.

Another Pixar film in the same vein is “Coco,” which presented the Mexican culture in beautifully positive light. It also introduced the theme of death and the possibility of interacting with the deceased. My point is that animated films, especially many of those made by Pixar, are not vacuous Saturday-morning cartoons for children. Rather they delve into deep topics that are meant to challenge children and adults alike.

I loved “Soul,” and I heartily recommend it to all my adult friends. But I was curious about how a child might react to the movie. So I consulted my “child expert,” my granddaughter Annabelle. I asked her (via her Mom) what she thought the film was about. My eight-year-old grandchild responded that it was about “confidence and enjoying the little things in life.” She agreed that it was thematically similar to “Coco,” but with better music. As usual, she said more in a few short sentences then I said in this entire review.

I did find one flaw with “Soul.” While each of its worlds appropriately has its own visual and musical style and while the characters do transition as they move back and forth, I wanted to see more of a linkage between the two worlds. I think the relationship between the essence of jazz—the harmony found in spontaneity—and the essence of the humanity’s “spark” could have been illustrated more directly. (Maybe by more overtly sharing musical themes?!). That said, “Soul” still deserves 4.5 stars.


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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.

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