I’ve talked numerous times over the years about just how disappointed I’ve been with the last decade of Pixar’s output. The studio that once put out highly original films went through a terrible patch of bad sequels and prequels that I never enjoyed.
They’ve slowly started crawling out of the pit with original movies again like Inside Out, Coco and Onward but I know I’ll never love the studio like I did as an adolescent.
I have to give credit where it’s due though. There are people still working at Pixar who occasionally scratch the itch for interesting original films. Pete Doctor in particular seems to GET these films more than most of their recent directors.
Pete worked on Monsters Inc and Up at the height of the company’s success and since directed Inside Out; Pixar’s best original film since the 2000s. I’m not sure what it is about him in particular that elevates the projects he’s working on but he finds something creative and in his material the rest of the company just doesn’t seem to find.
Soul is his fourth project and it’s no exception. I wasn’t terribly enthused by the marketing campaign for this film but the fact that it was in romantically dropped on Disney+ on Christmas Day meant I didn’t have an excuse not to give it a shot.
I’m glad I did. Soul is a really good kids film!
On its surface, the film is playing with some of the same visual motifs and dynamics that Inside Out explored. We have a real world and a fantastical other world populated by cartoonish abstractions and creative metaphors for human psychological development.
It’s also very much playing the same game of that film. It’s starting out as a wacky kids movie that positions itself to slowly transform itself into a more subtle and emotional meditation on humanism and emotional honesty.
This time around, we start our movie with Joe Gardner. Joe is a middle school music teacher who dreams of becoming a great Jazz performer and who was inspired since his youth to pursue music above all else. When he’s suddenly given the opportunity to play piano with one of the great living Harlem jazz musicians, he is ecstatic until he accidentally walks into a man hole and dies.
Joe wakes up in the entrance to the religiously generic “Great Beyond” where he flees his death and accidentally falls into a void which leads into “the Great Before”. Here, he meets infant souls before they’re sent to earth who need to be inspired by great souls who came before them about what will be their “spark” in life. Joe ends up conspiring with an old soul named 22 to trade a pass back to Earth in exchange for her spark so she can stay in the great before forever where she’s already comfortable and content.
Joe and 22 make great foils for one another. Joe has a love for life and the moment that fills him up and carries him through life while 22 exists in a state of spiritual adolescences. She’s the quintessential “failure to launch” who just wants to sit in the corner and not cause too much of a fuss in life. She’s not suicidal. She just doesn’t have the inner strength or desire to put effort into life and doesn’t understand what’s interesting about being a productive human being, especially one who doesn’t amount to much in life.
She very much resembles Pete Davidson’s character in King of Staten Island in that sense. She’s definitely the most relatable character in a year like 2020 where the relationship between effort and success has never been more perverse. She’s the millennial Id.
The actual story and circumstances of the film shift around constantly. The status quo you see at the beginning of the trailers with characters hanging out in the afterlife only represents the first act of the film. The story after this goes on several long digressions and surprising directions before it settles into how Joe’s story will resolve.
It definitely cuts deep. I don’t know just how much I agree with its message of “live in the moment” but there’s something quite gentle and humanistic about this film’s notion that the most important moments of life are the ones where you’re swept off your feet in the joy of the moment.
In that sense, Pete Doctor is rapidly becoming the Charlie Kaufman of children’s cinema. Between Soul and Inside Out, he’s tackling really heavy themes that actually figure out how to use the creative settings and worlds inherent in the premises of these stories to say things about life and humanity. It’s a sight to see!