Movie Review: How Pixar's New Movie, Soul, Raised Timely Questions About Selfhood and Purpose
At long last, a new Pixar film. For a generation that grew up on classics such as Monsters Inc, A Bug’s Life, and even Finding Nemo, a new Pixar film is something of a thrill. But Soul belongs to a new generation of Pixar, one that, like 2015’s Inside Out, focuses on something incredibly intimate. It’s almost laughable really, to think that just a decade ago children grew up on movies that centred around romance and fairy godmothers. Now moviemakers are tackling issues about life purpose — something most adults can neither make heads nor tails of (but don’t tell your kids that just yet).
Soul’s story centres around the life of Joe Gardner, a middle school band teacher who’s also an aspiring jazz musician. But like most movie characters who find themselves within the coils of New York City, Joe Gardner is having a difficult time achieving said dream, until one day it just happens. He gets a call from a former student telling him he should audition for Dorothea Williams, a frosty saxophonist who, with the raise of an eyebrow and the snap of a finger, fulfils all of Joe’s dreams by giving him a spot as her pianist for the night. Unfortunately, and quite literally, Joe dies in the very next scene.
What follows is an adventure through time and space, one that takes Joe to The Great Before, where he meets a host of interesting, almost post-modern characters. These include the soul sorters (all of whom are named Jerry or Terry), linear beings whose forms are vaguely reminiscent of Joseph Havel’s Moon, June, Spoon sculpture. There are an unsettling amount of unborn souls in The Great Beyond as well, one of whom is 22, a stubborn soul who can’t find her “spark” (and therefore refuses to go to earth). As with all movies, a fateful accident occurs. Now, 22 is trapped in Joe’s body, Joe is trapped in a cat’s body, and the two must find a way to sort things out, discover the meaning of life, and get Joe’s suit tailored all before Dorothea Williams’ show at 7pm.
Interestingly enough, for a movie that centres around life and death, Soul is also decidedly secular. Morality is neither the focus nor the tour de force that drives the plot. At one point, 22 literally runs away with Joe's body, but there are no repercussions on her part. We also never figure out what goes on in The Great Beyond, an eye-dazzling portal of white that mysteriously envelops all other souls. It's a safe choice, but a necessary one, as religion could prove divisive for a movie that's meant to be both accepting and inclusive.
So while morality isn't at the heart of the movie, what lessons are there to learn? Well, while everyone seems to be talking about the more prominent thesis statement (which is that a soul's spark isn't its purpose), I'd like to take some time to focus on Joe Gardner's own predicament.
Joe Gardner’s character is, quite frankly, pretty forgettable. Unlike his other Pixar counterparts, Joe isn’t a talking animal nor is he some kind of freakish superperson. He is, in most respects, a pretty ordinary guy. His first name, Joe (as in average Joe), even alludes to it. But this purposeful characterisation is an important one because despite Joe's perceived "ordinariness", he's someone who also yearns for more, and this, in itself, is something I and a lot of others can relate to.
Joe's lesson then, isn't necessarily that his spark isn't his purpose, but that it's important to slow down and appreciate the journey towards your dreams. I don't necessarily think that that idea is easy to put into practice; a concept as arbitrary as "living in the moment" isn't something that means the same to everyone either. While it's fairly easy to understand why we should appreciate the moment, it's also difficult to say how. How does one realise what Joe did without travelling to the astral plane or dying and resurrecting and then dying and resurrecting again? It's a nice enough sentiment in theory. In practice, however, it's different and would probably need a whole new Pixar movie to tackle.
Overall, Soul is a pretty good movie to watch, especially if you're looking for affirmation or trying to get some pressure off of you. Ultimately, it reminds us that we make our own purpose in life. For some time, Joe's purpose had been to land a prestigious jazz gig, and he did it. Now, maybe his purpose will be different. And while we have no idea who 22 later became in her new life, she carries an innate knowledge with her that unlike Joe, her spark isn't her purpose, and that's okay.
As with most Pixar movies, Soul was an enjoyable, poignant view at a life worth living. And much like our former philosophy classes, it's raised more questions than answers (about the story and about its meaning). But the good news is that, unlike Joe, we're in no rush to answer those questions just yet.