My 2 Cents on Pixar’s Soul

What’s new, readers? I mean, aside from the coup that President Trump’s MAGA minions attempted at the Capitol on January 6th, 2021, a date that will go down in infamy for our nation. It’s genuinely disturbing, but not one bit surprising, that a riot like this actually took place and resulted in five deaths thanks to Trump’s gift for inciting violence and discord. This is what happens when we’re governed by a president who called neo-Nazis “very fine people,” told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” constantly and shamelessly spread lies about election fraud, and roused his supporters at a rally on January 6th to march down to the Capitol and try to sweep it with insurrection. The leniency with which law enforcement handled this riot, compared to their savage approach to the BLM protests, is outrageous, too. Trump will continue inflaming the strife unless he’s immediately removed from office and prosecuted as a demonstration of justice. Groveling lackeys like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz need to be punished just as severely for their pitifully blind devotion to a narcissistic and unrepentant despot who thrives on hate, fear, and division. Hopefully, our democracy is able to put things right, though I can’t help but wonder what other crap Trump will excrete before the 20th. I know he promised an “orderly transition” after Congress verified his defeat, but we can’t trust any claims from a mendacious and unstable sociopath like him.


Now that we’ve got politics out of the way, we can almost start in on Pixar’s 23rd feature film, Soul. But first, I want to give my brief thoughts on Burrow, the accompanying SparkShort directed by Madeline Sharafian. While this doesn’t stick with me the way other, deeper shorts like Purl or Float have, I generally enjoyed this charming little short that puts an emphasis on community, something we’ve all longed for during the pandemic. The old-fashioned animation reminds me of Winnie the Pooh. Sharafian is also directing Turning Red, a 2022 Pixar flick about a teenage girl who transforms into a red panda whenever she gets excited—Pixar’s spin on the Incredible Hulk, essentially. It’s nice to see the imaginative offerings that come out of the SparkShort program and the goal it accomplishes as a launching pad for those who aspire to break into the animation industry. But I do wish the short would have played ahead of Soul instead of popping up as the credits roll.


Let’s move on to Soul, which dropped on Disney+ on Christmas 2020. Directed by Pixar veteran Pete Doctor (Up, Inside Out) and co-directed by Kemp Powers (screenwriter of One Night in Miami) in his directorial debut, and written by Doctor, Powers, and Mike Jones, Soul is a masterful display of Pixar’s knack for delivering emotionally and thoughtfully profound stories in stunningly animated packages. I’ll say this right now—it’s worthy of an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, if not the gilt statuette itself.


The film follows Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a New Yorker who earns a living as a middle school music teacher and strives to make it big as a jazz artist. Right as it seems like he’ll have to let go of that dream and settle for a permanent teaching post, he snags a chance to play with prominent jazz musician Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) at the Half Note jazz club. He heads back home on such a high that he’s too distracted to notice the open manhole into which he falls and dies, ejecting him from his body in an aquamarine soul form. A cosmic conveyer belt (evocative of the afterlife stairway in the 1946 British film classic A Matter of Life and Death) is about to transport him up to the Great Beyond, which we see as nothing more than a giant ball of light. Far from ready to officially kick the bucket, Joe ends up embarking on a quest through the Great Before, a spiritual realm where souls are born, to return to his body. Along the way he gets assigned as a mentor to 22 (Tina Fey), a cynical soul who is vehemently against starting a mortal life on earth.


The Inside Out comparisons are well-earned; even Doctor himself said that after releasing Inside Out in 2015, he wanted to make another narrative that ran along the same vein of capturing a specific and abstract aspect of our world in Pixar form. Inside Out deals with depression and the message that it isn’t necessarily bad to let yourself feel bad, whereas Soul addresses the importance of slowing down to appreciate the fleeting moments in life and the pitfalls of pinning all your hopes on a long-held goal to the point of neglecting every other part of your existence. While finding Inside Out to be a deeply stimulating movie, if I had to pick between the two, I’d go with Soul. Not only do I personally relate with the film’s nuanced examination of the human condition a little more, but it just feels so pertinent to the thorny year we recently overcame. Whether it’s paying the rent, avoiding the coronavirus, mourning the loss of loved ones, buying groceries, finding connection with other people, hammering out the kinks in remote work and virtual homeschooling, or various other issues, we’ve all had to maneuver around the numerous ways that the pandemic turned our lives topsy-turvy. That’s what makes this the perfect time to drop Soul, a project where the filmmakers behind it speak directly to us and give us a bold and refreshing reminder of how crucial it is to enjoy everything in our daily lives, even the most mundane minutiae.


Pixar is known for offering the ultimate family movies, their content appealing enormously to children while offering plenty to captivate the adults. Soul, however, feels geared more towards adults while aiming just enough entertainment at the kids to keep them in their seats—not only with its philosophical concepts, but also with the many times it grounds the narrative by giving it space to breathe and allowing the characters to reflect on the finer points of life. I’ve heard people say the plot can be slow, and maybe it’s just personal preferences, but I like it when an animated movie is able to take ten with compelling characters instead of constantly sweeping up viewers in hyperactive adventures. I wonder if children might find it more difficult to relate to Joe, an adult human who works as a teacher, than to a cowboy doll or a cute robot, though they could access the story through 22’s youthful perspective. Even the wry humor seems to target older viewers for the most part; unless the kids are familiar with Mother Teresa, Carl Jung, George Orwell, or the other renowned figures who tried to mentor 22 but couldn’t put up with her difficult personality, for example, I’m uncertain if they would laugh much at those cutaway jokes. The colorful visuals and the amusing gags revolving around the antics of a cat are likely easier for young viewers to home in on. Granted, kids are smarter than we give them credit for; from what I’ve heard, plenty of them were able to understand Inside Out. But I wonder if it’s because emotions are more accessible for a child who is three, five, or seven years old, and if the meaning of life might be too sprawling and theoretical for them to comprehend.


This is Pixar, so of course the animation is stellar—both for the physical world, which throbs with the brilliant colors and urban verve of New York City, and the pre-life of the Great Before, which brims with gentle hues and fluffy edges. The attention to detail is fantastic, whether it’s the rendering of Black hair or the light glinting off Dorothea’s makeup. I’m quite enamored of the design of the soul counselors, otherworldly beings who oversee the Great Before and appoint mentors to prepare souls for life on our planet. The counselors (Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Fortune Feimster, Wes Studi, Zenobia Shroff), whom are all named Jerry and appear to have nonbinary identities, are one of the most memorable pieces of Pixar animation I’ve seen in years, the glowing wires that comprise their bodies twisting and bending into forms that look at once two-dimensional and three-dimensional.


The Great Before is hugely distinct in many ways from Inside Out’s definition of the human mind, but the worldbuilding for both settings is equally intelligent and vivid. The Zone, the part of the Great Before where people lose themselves in the pure energy of their pursuits and transcend into spiritual form, is an especially smart touch. I’ve heard people compare the Great Before to The Good Place, an NBC TV show starring Kristen Bell as a woman who passes on to the afterlife, realizes she did some shitty things when she was alive, and commits herself to a journey of self-improvement with the aid of a mentor played by Ted Danson. I haven’t seen the series, but it certainly sounds similar to the mentorship between Joe and 22. This movie also gives off Heaven Can Wait vibes.


Foxx and Fey effortlessly slip into the characters of Joe and 22, their chemistry bouncing off each other as they venture through the whimsical and heartfelt plot. Picking Fey for the part of 22 seems to take inspiration from her friend Amy Poehler playing Joy in Inside Out. The diverse supporting cast is equally strong, including Bassett as Dorothea, Phylicia Rashad as seamstress and Joe’s mother Libba, Questlove as Joe’s former student Curley, Graham Norton as hippie sign twirler Moonwind, Donnell Rawlings as Joe’s barber Dez, and Daveed Diggs as Joe’s neighborhood nemesis Paul. Rachel House (she played Gramma Tala in Moana and Topaz, the Grandmaster’s bodyguard, in Thor: Ragnarok) gives an especially hilarious vocal performance as Terry, a soul counter whom the counselors wearily tolerate as they zealously pursue their task of keeping track of all the souls who pass on to the Great Beyond. Acting like that coworker who insists on being a stickler for the rules, Terry gets to be a zany standout without eclipsing the story’s down-to-earth aspects. The movie does a truly superb job at representing Joe’s family and friends, with each character feeling individual and real despite the small amount of screentime they get. And as always for Pixar, John Ratzenberger pops in as an offscreen voice in Joe’s memories, though his cameo is uncredited this time around.


The Oscar-worthy soundtrack is another excellently crafted element of Soul. Jon Batiste, the musical director on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, helmed the jazz arrangements and compositions, infusing the movie with a celestial soulfulness. He also sings “It’s All Right,” the track that plays over the end credits. We actually get to see him and his session musicians in the movie as the members of Dorothea’s band—Batiste doing the keys, a Black man on the drums, a Black woman playing the saxophone, and an Asian woman playing bass. The score by Oscar-winning composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network, Mank) further enhances it with touching and contemplative layers.


Soul definitely feels like an authentically Black movie, particularly with the barbershop scene and the Black hair animation. It’s noteworthy for being the first Pixar movie to have a Black man as the protagonist and a Black co-director—even today, a rare sight in the animation industry. Aside from Coco, Pixar gives us mostly white stories. Of course, many of us were leery of the movie when the first trailer dropped, considering the trope of body-swapping Black leads in animated movies like The Princess and the Frog and Spies in Disguisepops up far too often. The narrative does develop in a way that somewhat subverts the trope, puts a spotlight on the Black community of NY, and fleshes out Joe’s personal journey, although it isn’t without its flaws. As much as I love Fey’s performance, I do think this would feel a bit differently if a person of color played the role. I can’t say whether Pixar always planned on casting a white actor to please white viewers or if they just wanted Fey specifically. Ultimately, I think Soul is an improvement on animation’s inclination to disregard Blackness, and hopefully Pixar will continue creating inclusive stories, maybe even one where the Black lead stays in their physical body the entire time.


Now, I very much believe Soul should be a contender for the Academy Awards in the Best Picture category. It’s not necessarily the “best” movie of the year if you benchmark it against typical Oscar victors. However, it’s a film that is intensely thought-provoking without being inaccessible or stuffy, gives Black representation on- and offscreen, was released by an established studio known for its quality animation and storytelling, and embodies the self-reflection we had to undergo in 2020. It’s notable that Beauty and the Beast, Up, and Toy Story 3 are the only animated movies to ever be nominated for Best Picture. The Oscars tend to belittle animation for being lower quality, and that’s admittedly true for the majority of choices that dole out a surfeit of sophomoric slapstick humor, numbingly trite storytelling, and punishingly dull messages. I get it if the Oscars would prefer handing the award to Mank, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Hillbilly Elegy, Promising Young Woman, or Nomadland—none of which I’ve seen, so I can’t judge whether or not they’re deserving of accolades—but I’d also like to see them be able to recognize a marvelous animated movie when it comes along. If they don’t nominate Soul at the very least, then it will bring me back to 2019, the year when they gave Best Picture to Green Book, a good old white savior tale, instead of Black Panther, a movie that transcended the superhero genre with its cultural weight.


I haven’t enjoyed a Pixar movie this overwhelmingly since Coco in 2017. Most of Pixar’s offerings since then have been sequels—Cars 3 in 2017 (acceptable, yet forgettable), The Incredibles 2 in 2018 (solid, but the screenplay isn’t as tightly written as the first movie), and Toy Story 4 in 2019 (unnecessary after Toy Story 3, but it turned out to be a moving farewell to Woody). The last movie to come out before Soul and not be a sequel was Onward, which was a very sweet tale of brotherhood, but it doesn’t match the sky-high quality of predecessors like The Incredibles or Coco. Now that we have Soul, it feels like a welcome return to the heart of Pixar.


Made on a budget of $150 million, Soul has brought in, as of this writing, $32.5 million. So yeah, it’s nowhere near a box office triumph, but that’s something you can apply to any theatrically released movie in this period. It’s going to be interesting to see what will unfold if, and when, the film industry reins in the budget as they shift their resources towards streaming and PVOD, and whether this will translate into a drop in quality. It didn’t happen for Season 2 of The Mandalorian, where the direction, writing, set pieces, and visual effects in all eight episodes was superb enough that it could have played on the big screen. I’m keen to see if Disney can maintain a theatrical-level scope for WandaVision and the other MCU shows.


I hope Pixar can keep up the good work with their next entry, Luca, for which there’s an Easter egg in Soul. Eagle-eyed viewers will spot a poster reading “Visit Portorosso” in the window of a travel agency—a detail that’s already aging terribly in these COVID-ridden times. “Portorosso” is the surname of the eponymous young boy in Luca, which, unless COVID changes plans, will have a theatrical release of July 2021. It’s set in a seaside town on the Italian Riviera, where Luca and his new pal Alberto gallivant through the summer. The thing is, Alberto is actually a sea monster who turns into a human when he’s on land. Go watch the second episode of the Disney+ docuseries Inside Pixar if you want a look at Alberto’s sea monster state, which is reminiscent of the Amphibian Man in The Shape of Water and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.


I’ll give more of my thoughts on Soul in the spoilery space below. All my love and prayers go to you, readers. Stay healthy and stay strong.


Windup score: 95/100


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS


All right, the first thing I want to cover is the second-act twist, which I didn’t expect at all thanks to how hard the trailers leaned into Joe and 22 spending time as souls. Once Joe’s spirit possesses the body of therapy cat Mr. Mittens (I’m pretty sure the cat’s soul was able to be saved from the Great Beyond, right?) and 22 goes into Joe’s body, it sends the plot veering in a new direction and allows it to unfold into some of the most meditative and clever beats I’ve seen in a recent movie—both the animated and the live-action kinds. Because Joe is in the presence of his body and it serves his arc to have him watch his life from a distance, the body-swapping feels more respectful than Tiana transforming into a frog or Will Smith turning into a pigeon (oh Will, why, just why? For minor amounts of time in the opening and the end, you were the closest thing we had to a black James Bond until John David Washington came along in Tenet, but for the rest of the movie you have to slum it with tired jokes about things like being able to see your pigeon butt and Tom Holland’s face at the same time). I’m glad Doctor revealed he was mindful of this trope in an interview with SlashFilm. Nevertheless, a white actor playing 22 as she inhabits Joe’s body feels iffy. The remark that 22 makes soon after the switcheroo about her sounding like a middle-aged white lady seems to be an attempt at self-awareness, but a nonwhite actor like Mindy Kaling or Ali Wong could have done the part just as well and remedied most of the problem.


Multiple scenes are scattered throughout the plot to let Joe, 22, and the viewers simmer down and ponder for a minute. A favorite of mine is the one soon after the body swap where 22 has a panic attack and Joe calms her down by fetching her a slice of pizza, making her explode with bliss once she has a taste of it. 22 watching the fluttering leaf is another great beat, and so is Joe rooting her trinkets (the leaf, the lollipop, the pizza crust, the bagel piece) from his pockets and noodling on the piano. Then there’s the discussion that Libby has with her son about her wanting him to accept the permanent teaching job for the health benefits and the 401k, and his dad being able to devote himself to jazz only because he could rely on Libby to pay the bills—a pragmatic talk that adds to the movie’s grounded-drama tone.


The barbershop scene is perhaps the whole movie in a nutshell, showing how Dez is perfectly happy working as a barber after letting go of his earlier dreams of going to vet school when life got in the way. Furthermore, we learn through this lively conversation between Dez and 22 (in Joe’s body) that Joe isn’t the greatest guy, allowing himself to be so consumed with jazz that he never takes the time to engage with other people and ask them how they’re doing. It’s a shock for Joe himself to witness this from an out-of-body standpoint and begin to realize how selfish, detached, and unappreciative he’s become in his passionate pursuit of jazz—something he frequently calls his “purpose” and “reason” for being on this planet, something he believes is the “spark” for his soul.


As a Jerry explicitly informs him later, though, the spark is not your purpose in life; that was an idea he latched onto by himself because he’s so career-driven to the point of disregarding every non-jazz part of his life. The spark is basically meant to give your soul an oomph so you can enjoy living life for the sake of life itself. In 22’s case, she got her spark from her enthusiastic appreciation of life rather than any specific pursuit. At one point during her time in Joe’s body, she’s so deeply enthralled by every aspect of life that she mentions she could be a “skywatcher.” After spending millennia in the Great Before entrenched in her sardonic views on the mortal plane, she has evolved into absorbing everything about the world with an emotionally open and thankful attitude.


A scene that reinforces the core of Soul is the talk between Joe and Dorothea after her show, with him asking what they’re going to do now and her telling him they’ll keep coming back to the club every night. This is when Joe realizes he still feels dissatisfied despite achieving his dream—or at least, what he thought was his dream. Especially with Dorothea’s fish fable, this plays into the kinds of stories where characters reach their long-awaited aspirations and remain somewhat unhappy when said aspirations aren’t what they’re cracked up to be. It’s a common motif, but it’s crucial that Soul was able to weave this into its narrative and effectively convey its message without leaving us feeling as if the movie got up on its soapbox to hammer metaphysical lessons into our brains.


The scene where Joe returns to the Great Before to save 22 from her state as a lost soul is gorgeously animated and daunting to watch. At one time or another, we’ve all fallen into downward spirals of negativity that swallow us up in disapproval and insults, both from within and from without. That’s what 22’s time as a lost soul visualizes as she engulfs herself in Joe’s put-downs, which fall in line with the criticism she’s taken from all her past mentors. In general, lost souls are a fascinating element of this world, representing the countless numbers of people who fall into the grips of their own obsessions in the Zone and are left aimlessly wandering through life. Joe might have become a lost soul himself if he had remained fixated on jazz.


After Joe helps 22 go down to earth, a sequence that got me fairly emotional, I seriously thought for a second he might stay dead. Fortunately, a Jerry gives him a second chance at life as a reward for mentoring 22. It’s priceless when a different Jerry distracts Terry and sneakily messes with their abacus so they won’t hunt down Joe. To digress, Terry accepting the award they requested is yet another laugh-out-loud gag.


The last few minutes really do clinch the movie and its message for me. Pixar could have pushed biased morals on us by returning Joe to his teaching position, meaning we should settle for what we already have and be grateful, or by having Joe quit the school and dedicate himself to his vocation as a jazz artist, meaning we shouldn’t do anything less than realize our ambition. Instead, all we get is the Jerry asking him what he’ll do with his life and him replying that he doesn’t know, but he’ll enjoy every minute of it. While the “appreciate life” theme isn’t groundbreaking, the way that Doctor, Powers, and their fellow creatives communicate it to us is startlingly brave. Rather than skewing the message in one direction or another that feeds into capitalism, they tell us no matter what objective we work towards, no matter if we settle or chase our dreams, we need to savor life and all the beautiful little gifts it can present to us.


The world is always encouraging us to discover our “purpose” and then fulfill it, whether it’s being a musician, a teacher, a doctor, a writer, an actor, or so on. In school, it’s popular for students to be asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” That’s a weighty question to answer when you’re any age up to eighteen. Even if you’re beyond that age, you can still have trouble figuring out what you want to accomplish with your life. And when we socialize with others, more often than not, we’ll ask, “What do you do?” rather than, “Seen any good movies lately?” or, “What do you think about [insert societal issue]?” It’s intuitive for us humans to concentrate on our careers in the eyes of ourselves and other people. This is why it’s so courageous for Pixar to handle the narrative in this fashion, pushing Joe into a midlife crisis that goes through the afterlife and then leaving the rest of his path open for interpretation. We don’t even get a final scene of Joe and 22 reuniting years later at his class or the jazz club, which would have been easy for the filmmakers to slip in if they wanted to bring us closure. In the end, all that really matters is relishing every second of your life and not scoffing at it on your way towards a much-desired objective. To put it another way, live in the here and now, not the future. I’ve repeatedly been on the receiving end of this advice in my personal life, which is bothersome, considering I’m the type who loves looking ahead to the future and chugging along towards specific goals. But hey, that’s what Soul is supposed to do—leave us with some tough existential questions to mull over as the pandemic draws out.

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