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Soul: The big questions 5 min read

Soul: The big questions

What is the meaning of life? Is life worth it without a purpose? Is life a waste if not pursuing a purpose? Pixar's latest attempts to answer these questions and more.

By Cary Littlejohn
Soul: The big questions Post image

As promised, this begins The Pixar Project, where I’m going to review all of the Pixar films in the run-up to the Dec. 25 release of Soul. If you know a friend or relative or Pixar aficionado who’d enjoy this project, please pass it along.

It’s Christmas Day, and that means Pixar’s newest, Soul, is available on Disney+, and if you should really watch it. It’s about so many grand themes, and it’s such a great time to watch it. Forgive me for getting out of order for this one post, but I got off track somewhere early in this Pixar Project and I still have two films to finish the entire catalog of films. I’m interrupting the normal flow of things to celebrate the arrival of this film, which inspired this rewatch in the first place.

Since it’s so new and Disney+ isn’t guaranteed to be in everyone’s streaming menu just yet, I won’t spoil the plot, but I will outline it here.

Joe Gardner is introduced to us as a music teacher at a New York City school, and he’s clearly teaching as a bridge to sustain himself while he chases his dream of being a jazz pianist. He’s infinitely talented, but in the way so many supremely talented people fly under the radar by the sheer absence of dumb luck of getting noticed. Moments after landing his big break, he steps in hole on the street and wakes up in a different dimension, as an adorable blue blob, riding a conveyor belt toward the light at the end, the Great Beyond. He flees from it and falls into a separate space that defines the other end of life, not the end but the beginning, where souls are shaped by mentors and imbued by personalities before they make their jump to Earth to inhabit a body.

Joe’s single-minded mission to get back into his body, to wake himself up, is derailed when he’s mistaken as a Mentor of young, unformed souls, and gets paired with 22, a difficult soul who’s resisted mentors’ guidance for thousands of years, including the wisdom of Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Abraham Lincoln, and never earned her pass to Earth. She doesn’t want to go to Earth; she doesn’t see the point because it seems like a miserable existence. The rest of the film is Joe’s attempt to get back to his body, a task with which 22 agrees to help, and how, along the way of helping Joe, she finds herself and an appreciation for life on Earth. Too much more detail runs the risk of ruining the film, but this is enough to orient you to the film’s purpose.

Soul is the first Pixar film to star a Black lead character and a cast of predominantly Black characters, and for that reason alone, it would be a noteworthy film. Pixar now has 24 films to its credit, and this is the first in 25 years to feature African American culture at its forefront. To say it’s overdue is to state the obvious; to say it’s long overdue is still not quite strong enough a statement.

It’s fitting that it would be a film about a jazz musician. In a flashback, we see Joe’s father, Ray, taking him to a jazz club when he was a kid, a story Joe told his students in the beginning of the film. It’s the moment Joe fell in love with jazz because of the transcendent brilliance of a pianist in that club. But teenage Joe did not want to be there.

Joe:  Dad, I don’t wanna go.I don’t like jazz.

Ray: Black improvisational music. It’s one of our great contributions to American culture. At least give it a chance, Joey.

However late it may be, it feels like a great world to inhabit for Pixar’s first foray in Black culture in America. We can only hope Pixar returns to these worlds soon and often.

The film is a giant achievement from director Pete Doctor, who’s no stranger to giant achievements for Pixar, including Monsters Inc., Up, and Inside Out. Those films all explore huge themes and Soul explores perhaps the biggest of all: the purpose of life.

It’s a meditation on not just the purpose of life but rather the deconstruction of that phrase entirely: Does life require a purpose, and does a purpose equal a life? It’s extensively explored from both sides of the equation, since it pairs Joe, a middle-aged soul disembodied from Earth, and 22, an ageless being that’s not yet begun living. Joe has lived his entire life under the assumption that purpose definees life, and it’s to the exclusion of recognizing almost everything else that goes along with life. On the other side, 22 has been terrified to start living because she doesn’t feel like she has a sufficient purpose, that life’s not worth living until one identifies a purpose, that a purpose is a necessary condition for life.

The brilliance of the film is that it poses an answer to both characters’ fundamental questions through the same experiences. It’s a reminder of the fragility and unlikelihood of life at all, how every single day of existence is, in no small way, a miracle. The key is that so many of us lose sight of the miraculous. Tough experiences, the defeats, the disappointments, the mundane. They assail us daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, and they cloud our vision. Perhaps there is not better time for this film to be released than 2020.

There is a fine line between passion and obsession, and thus a conflation of purpose and life, and this is beautifully explored through Joe’s obsessive quest to be a musician of great renown. It’s fitting that art is the vessel for exploration of these massive issues. Art is arguably one of the most human things we do; it sets us apart from our animal relatives and predecessors. It’s not necessary to our survival, but it’s arguably essential to our existence. It’s easy to see beautiful music or the Great American Novel or stunning paintings or transformational stage performances as distilling the truths of life,  of plumbing its depths and showing us reflections of what we recognize but often overlook. It makes sense to focus on a person who obsessively strives to create such things the embodiment of the concept of losing sight of the forest for the trees. In trying to communicate the essence of the human experience, artists are prone to forgetting to live in the real world that surrounds them.

Soul will move you as it follows these two characters on their individual pursuits of what’s required for a life. It will remind you to take stock of your own, to contemplate your existence over your exponentially more likely non-existence, and to breathe in a lungful of fresh air in appreciation for your ability to do so. It will encourage you to get lost in the beauty of a song, to marvel at a sunset or a starry night sky, to smell a bouquet of flowers, to savor a flavorful meal, and to marvel at every single second of it.

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