In Soul, we follow Joe Gardner, a black middle-school jazz teacher who has spent his whole life compulsively chasing his dream to play for a crowd. Sadly for him, the world does not seem to have the same plan. One day he finally lands the gig of his dreams but dies suddenly in an accident.
He spends the rest of the movie bumping around various parts of the ethereal world, trying to get back to his comatose body in time to play the gig, with a comedic unborn Tina Fey soul by his side.
It is a fun, creative premise, but Pixar does not stop there. They go deeper. Now, Pixar movies covering deep topics are not a rare occurrence. But Soul takes it to a whole different level. Its premise allows it to ask questions like: what is the afterlife? where do people get their spark? and what is the purpose of living? It does not just ask, but it answers. It gets into serious philosophy. Unfortunately, that leaves the actual plot lacking.
It is almost like the movie is on a schedule, trying to tick different boxes. It has a series of points it wants to make and scenes it wants to do, but the actual jumps from point to point often contradict each other and leave the viewers asking all the wrong questions.
For example, the movie states that the only way Joe can get back to earth is if he helps Tina Fey’s character get her spark to live. That way the portal to Earth can open and Joe can head home. This interesting plot point raises questions about the meaning of life and what our sparks are. But for these questions to be discussed fully, the characters need to get back to Earth first. Thus the movie introduces Moonwind Stardancer.
This character serves a double purpose. Firstly, he serves as a funny character to keep young audience members invested. Secondly, he is a plot cop-out. He is successful at both. Thanks to this plot device (let’s call him what he is here), the movie gets to keep its main conflict going while also allowing the characters to go back to Earth and explore the more theme-enriching New York setting.
I would not usually be upset by this—it is a children’s film after all—but the issue is that the movie also seems to want you to care deeply about its rules. Several scenes at the start are exposition-heavy, demonstrating a world with well-defined rules that you would think should be stuck to. So the movie is having its cake and eating it too.
But let’s get back to the positives, more specifically, this film’s fascinating take on life. The twist at the end is simple, that Joe Gardner’s one-track focus on his goal is not the correct way to live. Instead of focusing entirely on your passions and nothing else, you should be more open to your day today. Look and appreciate everything around you. It is a powerful moment, pushed forward even more by the transcendent visuals and score.
Pixar hit it out of the park with visuals. One wonders how this animation can ever be topped. Several backgrounds look like photographs and yet the more cartoony human designs don’t detract from it. We have jumped the uncanny valley, people.
But back to the theme, it’s summed up brilliantly by one of the characters near the end of the story:
I heard this story about a fish.
He swims up to an older fish and says, “I’m trying to find this thing they call ‘the ocean.’ ”
“The ocean?” the older fish says, “That’s what you’re in right now.”
“This?” says the young fish. “This is water. What I want is the ocean.”
When we focus so hard on our goals, we could miss the ocean that is already around us. It is an adult conclusion to draw about life, and I commend Soul for going there.
This movie has the potential to change lives. I can imagine many people changing the way they act based on this movie. I certainly felt compelled to do so.
I will certainly rewatch this movie a lot in the coming years. Especially because of its no-strings-attached release on Disney+. While the story does suffer from the film’s ideas, the ideas are more than worth it. Check it out if you want a compelling and beautiful way to spend an hour and thirty minutes.