With their repertoire of acclaimed animations like Inside Out and Up, you can always count on Pixar to fuse profound and cerebral concepts into an all-ages kid’s show. And with Soul (2020), Pixar once more returns with masterful grace to deliver its moving message with poignancy and philosophical depth.
The 90-minute film starts with Joe, a mild-mannered, lanky man sporting circle-rimmed frames and a jazz fedora, gaining a permanent position as a middle school teacher. Instead of feeling a wave of relief that comes with his newfound job security, Joe was unhappy and felt restricted; he had more ambitious goals that kept him dreaming. Then on the same day, a breakthrough opportunity called for Joe as he was positioned to have a gig with Dorothea Williams, a notable jazz musician. It all worked out; his life was about to start and he was brimming with enthusiasm, strolling aimlessly at the dynamic streets of New York. Until…
Joe fell in an open manhole and the next scene we see is him in pastel, blue blob form. He was on the fast track to the “Great After”, the place where souls go after death. Reasonably, Joe rejected this and ran the opposite direction. He tore through semi-permeable invisible space and found himself in a place called the “Great Before”, a whimsical setting with rolling hills and tiny blue soul-blobs that are manifestations of people to-be. After an unexpected turn of events, he becomes tasked to mentor a blob named “22” to become ready to be set free to earth.
22 worked with multiple mentors beforehand like Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln, and the like – all leading to nothing but persistent shame and reinforcement of her made-up delusions. Her mind was fixed on the feeling that there’s no purpose in living on earth, which made her understandably bitter and non-compliant towards anyone who wished to to give her a fighting chance.
Before I ramble on further about the story, which has thoroughly moved me throughout, I think this is the perfect time to cut and instead talk about what the story insinuates and my own impressions rather than a full-blown synopsis.
Soul is an inventive and complex spectacle that balances what is real and what is intangible. It is heartfully intimate and charming in its portrayal, powerful enough to leave a lasting impression on people that didn’t even know they needed.
Joe, fixated on reaching an ultimate goal, believed wholeheartedly that he was destined to live a life that sparked something in him. He wanted that external motivating force to penetrate the trenches of his soul and in turn bring him where he is “supposed” to be, which for him is to become a star piano musician.
On the other hand, 22 is a blob-figure soul that adamantly denies change, and that was clear from the start. She is a soul that stayed longer than she should in the familiarity of the “Great Before” because she lacked the ability to harness her own reason for moving to earth. It is clear that she had cycled through multiple lifetimes without much change, which in itself is a reinforcing factor for her to stay put and never leave her comfort zone.
I can’t help but give praise to the use of jazz in this film. Whether it’s the brass instruments or the piano maintaining the beat, there’s always that one instrument that pops and dances to its own tune, playing an original, asynchronous, upbeat melody that takes up the spotlight unapologetically. Jazz largely had a historic past of being improvisational, which is exactly how 22 navigated the world in Joe’s shoes when she was forced to fall down to earth. She took on the role of the jazz beat – mostly off-beat yet absolutely authentic and imposing.
Joe was a man who was blinded by success as the ultimate goal. He wanted to live because he wanted to play the piano with Dorothea. But once he achieved the taste of “success”, he realized that he didn’t feel much different. As Dorothea would put it, he was a fish looking for the ocean while he was already swimming in the water. Without a matter of reframing, he would end up feeling unfulfilled as usual and chasing what’s ultimately a distraction from actual fulfillment.
But it was through the lens of 22 in his body when a light ignited in his own soul. She was scared and ambivalent at the thought of trying out something new but did so anyway. This was a display of bravery and a tell-tale sign saying “Hey, this isn’t so bad.” Finding the most seemingly insignificant items of the real world, holding onto them like precious artifacts, and finding meaning in them is also a thought-provoking sequence, allowing the audience ample time to reflect on their own observations. The message of the story was clear; that a life purpose is not reaching a certain goal, but being happy at where you are at at the present moment.
At the end however, Joe returned to life and for a while left 22 back at the Great Before. She becomes exponentially tormented and a husk of her former self, and having been alive for a short period, she manifested that by turning into a hulking, big shadow. It was when Joe in soul form handed over a butterfly wing, which was something that he would’ve normally branded as plain and unimportant, when 22 finally regains a sense of agency once more and goes to earth in grace. Joe gets to go too, which made the ending all the while more sweet and thematically consistent.
The sheer number of nuances and nudges on mental health and life purpose that Soul fits in this film is astounding. Meditation, self-discovery, hope, and even the sadder aspects of things like loss and depression are heavy topics that must be handled like a box with fragile markings taped in it. But with its intricacy and difficulty, the fruits of a successful implementation are remarkably sweet and a joy to be a part of. Soul captured the essence of something so intimate and yet so well-rounded for just about everyone.
Soul is a movie that will fit snugly at the same tier as many of Pixar’s predecessors. It’s a powerhouse film with a moving message that may be abstract, but extremely graspable. If you want a film that’s emotionally poignant and full of heart, give this movie a watch.
10/10 – Masterpiece