As light-hearted and child-friendly as they have always been, animations coming out of the Walt Disney Studios are not strangers to the concept of death. From Bambi, released all the way back in 1942, to The Lion King, which came out more than five decades later, this cinematic factory of dreams and wonder has been responsible for plenty of moments in which starry-eyed children had to come to grips with the fact that important characters die and that a huge deal of emotional distress tends to be caused by these unfortunate events. Be it directly, as in the classic example of Mufasa, or indirectly, as in the numerous princesses with deceased mothers and fathers, the presence of death in the company’s works has been almost as prominent as that of catchy singalong tunes.
Despite that, though, the Walt Disney Animation Studios never centered a film entirely around that topic. It was up to its much younger sibling by purchase, Pixar, to break that taboo in 2017 with Coco, a movie that used the colors and festive spirit of the Dia de los Muertos tradition to approach the matter with a softer touch. Pixar, whose artists were certainly raised on and inspired by the Disney classics of the past, had already deployed death as a key component in its scripts a handful of times (as seen in Finding Nemo, Up, and The Good Dinosaur), but Coco took a step forward by using that theme as the core component of its story. Four years later, the studio that has always been known for seamlessly throwing mature subjects into its colorful animations, such as by touching on depression with Inside Out, embraced death once more through Soul.
The first natural reaction an unaware spectator may have upon hearing of the premise is wonder whether Pixar has finally run out of creativity altogether. Reusing a central topic is a sign of artistic fatigue that is perhaps only beaten by the production of too many sequels, a sin that the studio sadly committed during the previous decade, even if many of those works were of good quality. Fortunately, instead of confirming evidences of a fading creative spark, the recycling of death as the core subject of a movie actually debunks the narrative, showing that sour notes like The Good Dinosaur and Cars 3 were nothing but points out of the curve and proving that, nearly thirty years after the release of its first full-length film, Pixar is still a powerhouse with an unmatched record.
Soul turns a possible weakness into a major strength mostly because it displays how the same subject can be approached in completely different ways and, as a consequence, give birth to equally distinct messages. If Coco had a central lesson, it was how the preservation of traditions is a way to keep those who have passed away alive. Soul, contrarily, dares to use death as a trampoline to explore a much heavier matter, forcing viewers to ask themselves what is the real meaning of life. It is a haunting philosophical, spiritual, and religious question that has followed humanity – and guided much of its development – for ages, and the fact it is a much more complex premise than the one of Coco transforms the task of Soul into a much harder challenge.
Thanks to all the tradition of Dia de los Muertos, Coco had at its disposal elements – be them related to story or visuals – that were quite well-defined. From the get go, the artists of Pixar had a limited vault of possibilities and references that they could explore, which certainly made their work a lot easier. With Soul, given the target was to ponder on the meaning of life, pretty much all pieces were available on the table; a sweet gift for sheer creative freedom but a tricky situation to handle when it comes to defining where the plot will go. With the chance to do just about anything, Pixar decides to put the spotlight on Joe Gardner.
A jazz aficionado from New York City, Joe is frustrated with where his life has taken him. Originally, he dreamed of a career as a musician; however, the only job he was able to get was that of a music teacher at a local middle school. One day, while giving a class, Joe receives a proposal to stick around as a full-time employee, with all the benefits included. Even though his mother excitedly urges him to take the offer, what would normally be great news for just about anyone comes with a bitter taste for him; after all, teaching is not what he sees as his ultimate purpose. Joe, however, gets one lucky break when a famous jazz legend comes into town and he discovers she needs a piano player. After an audition arranged by a student, the man lands the job and happily runs home while thrilled by the news; lost in the excitement, he falls down a manhole and dies.
At this point, Soul suddenly shifts gears. The first question it tries to answer is what exactly happens after one has passed away. Once more, the characteristics that separate it from Coco play a key role in guaranteeing the path it takes at that moment is totally unique. Thanks to the visual splendor of the Mexican festivity, Coco had clear elements from which to drink when tackling that mystery. Soul, on the other hand, is left hanging in the land of philosophical contemplation; based on no tradition whatsoever, intending to be religiously neutral, and looking for an artistic compass to follow, the movie gets delightfully abstract.
With his soul detached from his body, Joe drops into black emptiness. Landing on what looks like a conveyor belt, he starts being transported towards a massive source of light. Unable to understand what is happening and still consumed by the excitement of finally getting his big chance, he comes across others like him, who are also being taken towards the brilliant giant orb; noticing his confusion, they reveal the truth to him: this is the Great Beyond, he is dead, and it is time to move on to the afterlife. As he watches the souls be consumed by the light, he realizes that is the end of the line. Joe despairs and tries to escape his seemingly unavoidable fate, somehow managing to break out of that dark zone and falling into yet more unknown vacuum.
Ultimately, he accidentally ends up in an area known as the Great Before. There, unborn souls are briefly mentored by notable minds until they find a spark: a stroke of inspiration that means they are ready to live. Mistaken for another man, Joe is assigned to accompany the training of Soul 22, a devious spirit that – as the number implies – has been around for millennia and has gone through an endless list of notable teachers that have been uniformly unable to trigger her spark, as she cynically sees no reason whatsoever to live. Accompanied by her, Joe tries to find a way to return to his body, which has remained stuck in a coma thanks to his efforts to escape from the afterlife.
Of course, as it is expected of Pixar, the acts of Soul that happen away from our mundane planet feature plenty of childlike wonder: the models that represent the souls look and feel like cute miniatures made of foam, with the spirits that have already lived delightfully having traces of their human selves; there is plenty of humor pouring out of both absurdly wacky situations as well as jokes; and the Great Before, the area where most of the action takes place, has blooming colors like those of Candy Land from Wreck-it Ralph. However, it is clear the artists of Pixar had quite some fun with the intangible nature of the movie’s subject and the lack of an earthly reference point.
Touches of abstract art are, therefore, abundant. The Great Beyond is a dark and ominous area with punctual and simple shapes. The Great Before, in order to allow the new souls to be trained, has minimalistic visual representations of the activities people may dedicate themselves to during their lives; likewise, the area has plenty of nods to psychedelia in the punctual appearance of absurd and colorful structures. Finally, the whole operation is run by creatures unanimously named as Jerry. These, which – in their own words – are representations of the forces of the universe, are human-like figures made of luminous wires that seem to be 2-D projections of multi-dimensional objects.
Although it could have used these elements to build a movie whose second half matches the bold artistic inspirations of the first act of WALL-E, which dared to use silent storytelling for half an hour, Soul soon steps down from the abstractions and returns to more concrete grounds. With the help of 22, Joe eventually manages to go back to Earth. However, a minor slip-up causes the unborn soul to follow him there. Worse yet, she is the one that ends up in the man’s body, with Joe himself actually landing on the cat that was being used in a therapeutic attempt to wake him up from his coma.
After successfully escaping accusations of reusing the same central theme as Coco, here the movie comes across yet another challenge; after all, it transitions from an animation that talks about a man’s death on the happiest day of his life to one that takes advantage of the commonly used premise of two souls that are trapped in the wrong bodies. Again, however, Pixar successfully turns a possible flaw into a display of strength. Yet more significant than that, the film actually uses that turn of events to simultaneously subvert viewer’s expectations and find the message it so desperately wants to get across.
The first operation is successfully done because Pixar has famously built a collection of classics based on hypothetical scenarios that turn out to be, much thanks to the talents within the company, beautifully fruitful. Audiences have seen what would happen if toys were secretly alive, if monsters had an organized society energetically dependent on the screams of children, if a rat were a brilliant chef, if superheroes were forced to live a normal life, and more. Soul, like Coco, could have followed the company’s own cliche and worked towards showing people what happens after they die. Sure, to a certain point, it does just that, but – surprisingly – dying is not what the movie is about; in fact, right after Joe makes it back to Earth, Soul starts making it clear that it actually wants to talk about living.
Joe, like many, has not achieved his grandest dream. He has not gotten rich; he has not gotten famous; and he is unable to make a living as an artist. He has been forced to move forward with what life has handed to him. In the midst of routine and frustration due to goals that have not been reached, he began to see his existence as not too special. When the cynical 22 lands on his body and starts to have a taste of life, her innocent outlook on the world allows her to notice beauty and excitement in details that Joe – not different from numerous other humans – has either grown accustomed to or come to ignore completely.
In Soul, it is death that sets the wheels in motion, but that is not by any means its main theme. According to Pixar’s standard procedure, the movie does give audiences a creative look on what happens both before and after humans pass through this world. But the real star of the show here is what people perceive as mundane: the falling leaves, the gentle breeze, the artists on the subway, the tasty hot pizza, and the little human connections that happen through the day. Because of course life has plenty of big notable moments, but when compared to the overall lifespan of an average person, those are few and far between; as such, existence can grow rather dull if the huge achievements are all that matters.
It is often said people take what they have for granted, only truly learning how to value it when they lose said possession. Ironically, life, which is the greatest asset any creature can possibly have, does not give such an opportunity, as by the time it is gone it is too late to appreciate it properly. By making a considerable portion of its running time be focused on a man who desperately wants to live again, Pixar attempts to show viewers how much life should be treasured, and in a concession to children in the midst of what is probably the company’s most adult movie up to this points, it wraps that theme around a whimsical quest in New York City by a man and a cat.
Soul is a movie that, through death, steps in to look for meaning in life. As it turns out, it does not find a big answer; in fact, it has no answer at all to offer. What it shows, instead, is that – as far as our earthly perception goes – human existence is nothing but a sequence of usually small events whose significance and power will be lost on those who are either looking too hard for a purpose or working excessively towards a goal without ever giving themselves a chance to stop and smell the roses.
As it happened in Inside Out, it is possible to question whether the message is understandable to kids, which may fall victim to boredom as Soul moves along; additionally, and coming off as pure flaws, it can be pointed out that the movie uses a couple of plot devices that feel too forced in order to make some of its major events unfold and that the conclusion it comes to is kind of cliche. What cannot be denied, however, is that it surprises and succeeds in sending its message in a way that is original, delicate, unexpected, powerful, and beautiful. In other words, it fits right in the Pixar tradition of touching animations that try to enchant children and, even if for just a few days, make adults contemplate their lives from a different – and better – angle.
4 thoughts on “Soul Searching”
I do like how Pixar are touching on topics like death and depression in their movies, but doing it in a way we can understand and not feel down about it ourselves. I really enjoyed Soul, at one point even made me question if what I am doing with my life right now, if I’m happy with it. Also Richard Ayoade did a fantastic job in this, his voice acting was amazing!
I also love it that they are going for these topics. I wonder where they are going next. And Soul does make us question our lives and how we are living it without making us feel too bad about it. You are right. That’s quite an achievement.
And yeah, he did great! The voice acting was overall pretty stellar.
I am looking forward to seeing this movie. It will take a lot to replace how I felt about the wife dying in up though.
I hope you enjoy it! And yeah, that Up moment is quite hard to surpass.