Soul, Pixar’s newest animated feature, now on Disney+, tells the story of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), an aspiring musician who, on the day of his big break, nearly dies. His soul is transported into The Great Beyond, where he must pair up with another soul, Number 22 (Tina Fey), and try to get back to his body.
Since this is a Pixar movie, it goes without saying that the animation is stunning and the music, character design, and voice work is excellent. Soul is beautiful to look at and enjoyable for all ages.
Yet Soul, to me, is far from the studio’s strongest efforts, for a few reasons.
At this point, I am sick of depicting the afterlife as a bureaucracy, a place of lines and procedures and paperwork. This has, disappointingly, become a default-characterization. Soul desperately avoids being religious, but choosing to depict the afterlife in this way is disappointing and speaks volumes of the lack of imagination we as a culture have that we can’t picture an afterlife as being any greater than our own workplaces. We hesitate to imagine what divine, beyond-Earth splendor- or horror- could actually be.
2013’s Inside Out, the clear predecessor to Soul (both are directed by Pete Doctor) has a similar depiction. Inside Out shows the inside of the human mind as also being a place of rules and regulations. This depiction wasn’t as annoying in Inside Out, not only because it was the first film to do it but also because Inside Out was clearly a metaphor for what could be going on in someone’s brain, and, to an extent, what a person imagines their own mind to be like. It makes sense that a character like 12-year old Riley could only imagine her head as a workplace because that’s what she’s exposed to. It was an interior look, while Soul aims to explore something spiritual, something beyond us, yet can’t imagine it as anything beyond us.
Granted, there are moments of visual imagination when it comes to the afterlife. One of my favorite sequences is the climax, where Joe goes to find 22 and discovers that she has become a “lost soul.” The visuals of this sequence are gripping and shows just how good Pixar can be when they lean into the darkness. Joe is able to rescue 22 by speaking to her compassionately, following a new (and welcomed) trend where the protagonist and antagonist do not fight, but the protagonist extends grace to the antagonist and coaxes them out of their actions (see also Moana, A Wrinkle in Time, Over the Moon, and Wonder Woman 1984).
The lost souls are depicted as people who have just lost their love of life; their “lostness” is not tied to their actions or sin or consequences. If you don’t love life enough, you are a lost soul. It’s not bad, per se. But it does feel a little flimsy, especially considering the stronger choices Soul promises but pulls back on. In this same sequence, the movie sets up Joe to be making a great sacrifice to give 22 life. But then he is immediately granted another chance at life, meaning there is no sacrifice, cutting short the possibility of real consequences and emotional stakes. The lack of strong emotional stakes tie into Soul’s likewise muted moral, which boils down to: don’t forget to stop and smell the roses, and, you’re a human be-ing, not a human do-ing. These are good messages, and there are several lovely moments of the film that call attention to everyday beauty. But these morals are not new, nor do they completely fit in with a movie that still spends more time on Joe’s musical ambitions than they do any other part of his life. Soul argues that Joe needs to care about more than his music, yet that is all that the movie fleshes out about Joe.
This is not the only way Joe is held at a distance from the audience. Throughout the movie, his soul jumps into several different forms. As reviewer Andrew Tejahda writes for Tor.com: “it’s hard to ignore that [Soul’s] main plot can’t work unless a black man is left stranded outside his body and robbed of his identity. His drastic transformations kept creating distance between us and his true self. This left the impression that this beautiful looking Pixar film wasn’t fully connected to its main character’s…well, soul.”
Soul is fun to watch and is certainly one of the best animated films of 2020, but it is hard to shake the feeling that it’s a missed opportunity, or could have been better with a little more direction.
– Madeleine D.