Many people often look ahead to the afterlife. But the Brazilian actress Alice Braga says Pixar's new animated movie, "Soul" — which premieres Christmas Day on Disney+ — will compel viewers to look back at the reasons they want to live.
"We always think, 'What is afterlife?'" Braga said. "But we never think, 'Is there something that comes before us arriving here?'"
The film tells a touching story about Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a Black middle school band teacher who falls through a New York City manhole and gets his body separated from his soul.
This is the second time Pixar has taken viewers on a big-screen adventure into the afterlife. Fans will remember "Coco" — the first U.S. big-budget film ($175 million) to feature an all-Latino cast — in a skeleton-filled Day of the Dead afterworld.
"Soul" similarly celebrates the rich diversity of human life — Gardner is the first Black protagonist in a Pixar film. And the movie's afterworld at times looks and feels like an elegant but simple canvas intended to inspire both characters and viewers to (re)kindle the spark that drives their inner and outer lives.
Braga, known for her roles in USA Network's "Queen of the South" and movies like "I Am Legend" and "City of God," gives voice in the movie to a counselor of souls, who looks like a surrealist figure in one of Pablo Picasso's paintings — "appearing in a form that your feeble human brain can comprehend," she tells Gardner on screen.
The counselor meets the teacher in the Great Before (rebranded popularly in the film as the You Seminar), an abstract space where souls get their personalities before coming to Earth.
Souls are sometimes described in popular culture and religious beliefs as blueprints of light that can give a person purpose. But Braga said the heart of the film is the idea of a "spark," which will roughly translate for viewers as the reason souls want to go to Earth.
On screen, Gardner is eager to get back into his body, which is described as being "in a holding pattern." And he acts as a mentor for a childlike soul named 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), who has been stalling to find a "spark," or a reason to leave the Great Before.
Braga said that off screen, her spark, or her reason for becoming an actress, came from studying and imitating the personalities of other people.
"I think all of us have one personality but so many ways of reacting to different things, and that was what really sparked my attention," said Braga, who comes from a family of actors, including her aunt, the well-known film star Sônia Braga, and her mother, Ana Maria Braga. Her father, Nico Moraes, is a director. "I think through emotions we can connect with people and we can make change."
"Soul" generally strikes a middle ground between heavy themes and light touches. During a funny yet philosophical moment, 22 asks at a barbershop: "Is all this living really worth dying for?"
Braga said viewers will be able to answer 22's existential question when they tune back in to their lives, reconnect with their personalities and remember why they want to live.
The movie, she said, "brings appreciation and deep thought of who we are and what makes us us."