You may well have a bone to pick with the Chief Creative Officer of Pixar, Pete Docter. He’s the man responsible for making us cry rather uncontrollably during the first 10 minutes of Up and also made us re-evaluate how we understand our core emotions with Inside Out. All in all, Docter has almost certainly had an impact on both the children in our lives as well as ourselves.
Pixar’s new film, Soul, directed by Docter and co-directed by Kemp Powers is possibly the studio’s most ambitious and courageous film to date. Not only is it the studio’s usual whimsical, life-affirming stuff, but it also sets to probe the eternal question of why are we on this Earth? What makes our life valuable and how is it measured? A lot of heavy stuff for adults to deal with, never mind children, but perhaps that is Soul’s – and Pixar’s – greatest strength. They don’t just cater for a certain age group specifically but attempt to branch out and tell stories that are larger than life.
Soul follows Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a music teacher who dreams of playing the piano on stage but is afraid that ship has sailed. When he gets the opportunity to audition for the legendary Dorothea Williams, Joe is over the moon. Even more so when he gets the gig. In fact, he’s so happy he forgets to look where he is going, falls down a manhole and dies. Jolly beginning, eh? Joe’s core, his soul, is then transported to a magical bridge that will take him to The Great Beyond, but Joe isn’t giving up so easily. He manages to escape and finds himself in The Great Before and accidentally gets paired up with 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who is less than keen to be sent to earth. Together, they devise a plan that will hopefully allow 22 to stay put and will send Joe back to his life, where he left off. Of course, it doesn’t quite go to plan and a lot of hilarity and a lot of deep pondering about life’s purpose ensues.
It’s not easy making a film about life itself. How do you tackle the questions no one has the answers for? How do you make it comprehensible for not just children, but adults too? You need to give form to things that don’t exist on the same plane as us. With Soul, Pixar has tackled all of these with humor and warmth. Soul is, at its core, an adventure and a comedy. It’s sad, heartbreaking and holds some difficult, yet universal truths but there are also plenty of hearty laughs that stem from classic slapstick comedy.
And why wouldn’t you explore life’s biggest questions with such genuine curiosity and positivity? What a lot of Oscar-nominated, serious dramas have looked at with anxiety and fear, Soul lunges at with open arms and a handful of questions. It’s innovative and exciting, but it also makes it accessible; it’s much easier to understand something that makes you laugh than something that makes you fearful and that’s what Soul does so brilliantly.
There is still a slight undercurrent of tragedy to Soul’s otherwise sweet narrative. It forces us to examine our own lives through Joe’s; are we happy? Have we fulfilled our potential? Or perhaps we’re blind to the good things in our life, always yearning for the greener grass on the other side of some metaphorical fence. At its best, a film – any film – can change your life, alter your worldview and make you appreciate something you didn’t before and Soul seems to trade exclusively in this.
Docter and Powers actively try to make you see your own life in a different light. Joe’s story isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but Docter and Powers’ approach to it is; take a completely ordinary character and make them see their own extra ordinance and the beauty of it. Through Joe, we’re invited to not only relate to him, but compare our own life to his and see the similarities; maybe we once had a dream that we thought was unreachable or maybe we’re stuck in a rut, unhappy and unable to see the beauty around us.
Existentialism is a philosophical theory that focuses on the individual and their own free will, their ability to change their destiny if you will. It seems silly to describe a film, an animated film nonetheless, as existential but that is exactly what Soul is. While it never crosses the line to religion, it certainly dips its toes into several different philosophical theories, before finally landing to existentialism to complete its narrative.
Soul emphasizes Joe’s own power to change his destiny. He escapes death, or at least The Great Beyond, because he refuses to accept it and let the bridge take him to the light. In the beginning, Joe is seen in a classroom full of kids playing instruments, badly, practically murdering the tunes they are aiming for. It’s all a little drab and the color palette is muted but once Joe gets the opportunity of a lifetime, everything is just a little brighter and colorful, but never as much as when Joe plays the piano, losing himself completely in the moment. It is here that Joe truly comes alive, flourishing and living life in the moment, completely and totally.
Built into the film’s core premise is the fear of death, even if that’s not the main focus. Joe isn’t necessarily scared of death as a concept, but afraid his life wasn’t as fulfilled as he had hoped. Soul bravely suggests that not only can we always return to that childlike state of euphoria and promise, ready to fulfill all our potential, but also that whether we see it or not, we’re living our best life, we might just need a little push to see it clearly.
Docter and Powers also push the boundaries of the medium visually. Soul is much more experimental visually; there are plenty of different shapes and textures, all brilliantly brought to life through the animation. The peculiar workers at The Great Before – all called Jerry – are two dimensional, slightly glowing collections of smooth lines, much more abstract than Joy and Sadness from Inside Out, but the film certainly matches several Pixar classics in imagination and use of visuals to communicate complex ideas and themes.
Soul also captures New York City in all its glory. As much as Soul is a celebration of life and who we are, it’s also an ode to the city it portrays as well as the teachers who shaped our lives. If you were lucky, you may have had a Joe Gardner in your life. His relationship with student Connie is gentle and tender; Connie loves music and jazz but is ridiculed by her peers, but Joe sees her passion and her talent.
Ultimately, Soul is an emotionally resonant look at what makes you you, or me me. It takes something abstract and difficult and makes it accessible for all age groups, opening up a dialogue not just about death, but about life itself. It teaches you to appreciate your life as you live it, rather than when you’re looking back at it. Docter and Powers asks us to smell the roses, eat that cake and be your best, most authentic self every day on this Earth.