Release Date: December 25th, 2020
Director: Pete Docter | MPAA Rating: PG | LeavittLens Rating: 9.5/10
(If you haven’t seen Soul yet, you may want to wait to read this until you have watched it in full).
When I first heard the news that Pete Docter–writer of perhaps the most emotional, existential, and thought-provoking films in the Pixar canon (Up, Inside Out, Wall-E, and Toy Story)–was involved in the writing of the newest Pixar effort, Soul, I excitedly awaited another delightful gut-punch of a film, one that would both make children laugh out loud and adults cry and reflect on the nature of life and existence. What I received, however, was far different than those previous films, and while it lacks some of the Pixar ‘magic’ of those entries, Soul nevertheless remains an artifact that at once captures the childlike wonder of life and explores the mature philosophical question of how to live well.
The film follows its protagonist, middle-school jazz teacher Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), as he comes to terms with the fact that he has ultimately failed on his dreams to become a professional jazz musician; we meet him as an artist in the midst of a wrestling with the pragmatic, trying to keep his dream alive while also realizing he may have failed in his “purpose” all along. Soon after this somber realization, however, Joe receives a phone call, indicating his first real shot at making it big. His showing goes well, and it seems that Joe is finally moving up in the world, when he suddenly falls into a manhole and dies, a mere nine (9!) minutes into the film.
We then are introduced to Joe’s soul, which awakens amidst an afterlife escalator, progressing slowly towards The Great Beyond. Counter to the rest of the souls that surround him, Joe is terrified of the potential of a permanent eternal residence, and fights his way through the crowd of his peers until he somehow creates a schism in the afterlife, falling to a new location called The Great Before. It is here that he is mistakenly identified and charged with mentoring a stubborn and cynical soul named 22 (Tina Fey), who has been preparing for life but has been entirely unable to find her “spark,” a mandatory requirement in order for her to move to earth and inhabit a body. The film follows the hijinks of Joe and 22, as the former claws and scratches to return to a life he feels he was robbed of, and as the latter agrees to help so that she no longer has to repeat the soul-preparation cycle.
An introspective journey befitting of a highly introspective 2020, Soul is a beautiful and provocative work, and exploring the film from those two frames reveals its brilliance.
At this point, given their dominance of the genre over the course of the last three decades, it seems that we can almost take Pixar’s animation for granted, assuming excellence rather than appreciating it. Soul certainly falls victim to this phenomenon; rather than setting the film against the wondrous backdrop of a vibrant Land of the Dead (from Coco), a mysterious and magical island jungle full of mystical creatures like “snipes” (from Up), or a world where inanimate objects come to life (Cars, Toy Story), Soul spends a large portion of its time in the real, everyday world of a bustling New York City. While we do receive a talking cat through portions of the film, and are introduced to afterlife realms like The Great Before and The Great Beyond, these aspects of the film still fail to approach the “magical” aspects of other Pixar predecessors; indeed, even the somewhat ‘magical’ aspects of Soul are composed largely of simple colors and unremarkable backdrops, largely accentuating minimalist characters stylized after postmodern art. Furthermore, we receive the world largely through the eyes of a middle-aged, middle school jazz teacher ; he’s not an animal, car, monster, robot, or child, but is instead an adult, mired in a mid-life crisis that will remain relatable far more for parents than it will for kids.
It can be easy, therefore, to miss the true genius of the film’s unique artistic expression. Where it may lack in explicit Pixar pixie-dust, it compensates with implicit, narrative-focused animation that thematically communicates in every moment of screen time. Notice, for instance, the “background” elements of New York City in the film (that is, every element but the characters). They are hyper-realistic, textured, and structured, indicative of the real world; indeed, pause the film from time to time and examine a hospital, or a saxophone, or a jazz club, or a street corner, or a sweater, and you will find that it feels and looks like the real world. Yet within this clearly defined, real-world structure, each character is uniquely exaggerated and expressive, with distinct features entirely their own (notice the different elements of Joe’s face, Curley’s build and mannerisms, Dorothea’s larger than life presence, Moonwind’s outlandish hair, etc.). This sort of move is obviously intentional, and this intentionality is made all the more clear by the fact that scenes of the afterlife (or before-life) are absent of this interplay between realism and abstract caricatures, opting instead for a simple and postmodern aesthetic.
In this sense, the animation is actually a fully realized expression of one of the film’s major themes: jazz as a metaphor for life itself. Indeed, as Joe describes it, “the tune is just an excuse to bring out the you.” In jazz, the artist is given a “template” of sorts, a structure based on important musical information (a key, an instrument, etc.); from this foundation, each artist is often given the opportunity, and even encouraged, to improvise, so long as they remain in the structure of what is given to them. This means any song, any note, any solo has the potential to transcend the written, planned music, and come to life in a whole new way. The film’s animation expresses this same, central concept: each character is particularly expressive, with their own characteristics and tendencies, but they all live and move uniquely within a defined and ordered world. Such narratively focused animation reveals the beauty of Soul, showing that magic is found even in the seemingly simple and mundane, and that music is intrinsically woven together with life itself, like the strings that vibrate as Joe falls from The Great Beyond.
With this template of simple and creative beauty set, Soul proceeds to build up audience expectation, and then thoroughly deconstruct it in order provide a culturally provocative resolution, one that flies in the face of the countless Western expressions of how to find life’s true “meaning.”
The film commences with its audience “setup” by revealing Joe’s initial interpretation of the soul-preparation process at the YouSeminar. While the short video explanation he sees only technically mentions the idea of souls requiring a “spark,” Joe interprets this to mean “purpose.” Joe’s interpretation fits nicely into our Western, romanticized pursuits of meaning, which imply that we if we just turn ourselves inward enough, if we simply explore the depths of our soul, we will find our distinct purpose. Life is, as our $11 billion self-help industry tends to communicate, simply about self-discovery. Indeed, Joe simply thinks that he will only be able to rightly face The Great Beyond (or, more morbidly, death) once he has discovered, and lived, his particular purpose. This assumption is so embedded into our own Western minds that we don’t even notice the jump Joe makes from “spark” to “purpose” in the film; we simply accept his conclusion and carry on. The film progresses without explicitly addressing this assumption, and expertly allows Joe’s mentality to become the audience’s mentality: the hijinks that ensue between Joe and 22 are all hurdling towards the discovery of his one, singular purpose, which he believes is to play jazz piano professionally. After their pursuit of this goal, Joe finally gets exactly what he had been looking for, and we seem destined for the obvious moral lesson, “Just discover your purpose, and pursue it with everything in you, and you will have lived a good life.” Building towards this expectation, however, the film proceeds the pull out the proverbial rug.
Upon the completion of his first real jazz performance, Joe reaches the pinnacle of his life, possessing for the first time his “purpose” as he has so clearly seen it from the opening scene of the film. Yet once the club has emptied, and his family and friends have left, Joe realizes–with the help of a profound and thought-provoking parable from Dorothea Williams–that he still has an unshakeable feeling of emptiness. Grasping what he thought would provide him lasting satisfaction, he finds instead what Qoheleth, the narrator of Ecclesiastes, would call “vapor” and a “striving after wind.” He has reached the mountaintop, accomplished his “purpose,” and is somehow still missing something. After building up audience expectation, Soul proceeds to crush the modern self-fulfillment fantasy, and opts instead to take us to a much more compelling, and fulfilling, endgame.
Following his letdown, Joe returns home, and after sitting briefly, he notices a smattering of different artifacts from his life and his time with 22 scattered across a table. Without much hesitation, he elects to toss the music from his piano, and instead spreads those artifacts across the music stand. He then proceeds to “play” this new music. This sets up one of the more profound cinematic sequences of 2020, as Joe’s music begins to connect him back to memory after memory, eventually expanding up and out, and closing with a shot of the entire galaxy. This is primarily where Soul differs from other Pixar predecessors, in that it does not spoonfeed a neat moral lesson, but instead allow the audience to experience what Joe is feeling in the moment. It is in this sequence that we find Soul’s real message about meaning in life: it is not about discovering and possessing some predetermined, rigid purpose, as this will only lead us to disappointment (if we do not attain it before we die) or letdown (if we do attain it and realize it is unsatisfactory). It is instead about living each day as an encounter of wonder with the transcendent, like the falling leaf or the breeze or the sound of a beautiful tune, and choosing to give ourselves up for the sake of others. Indeed, this is how life begins to imitate jazz in the film: Joe is able to start living, or ‘jazzing,’ only when he allows himself to move with life as it comes to him, focusing on the divinity of the mundane and the necessity of self-sacrifice.
Thus–as the final credits close on Joe’s satisfied face, taking a deep breath of the morning air as he steps into a new day–we realize that he has found his life precisely in having lost it; it is in his utter willingness to die to himself that he finds true, meaningful life. An echo to the example of Christ, and a hearkening back to a message our souls seem to have known at one point and lost along the way, Soul stands out as a beautiful and provocative tale of life and meaning, one that is sure to reward regular reflection.