What kind of film would you picture if I told you about a plot that revolved around a middle-aged teacher who dies, prompting an existential crisis about his meaning and purpose on earth? Are you imagining a melancholic drama with serious actors? Perhaps an Oscar-baiting prestige motion picture? You’d maybe be surprised when you discovered that this is actually the premise of the new family film, Soul, from animation powerhouse Pixar.
Soul is an unusual film. It follows Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a jazz fanatic who has been stuck in a teaching job with mostly unenthusiastic high schoolers. In one single day, Joe gets offered two opportunities: both a permanent position at the school and the chance to play with a saxophone legend. One brings stability and benefits, the other allows him to fulfil a lifelong dream. Before he can decide between these two futures, he dies. He finds himself on a conveyor belt to ‘The Great Beyond’, but, unwilling to go there just yet, Joe’s soul tries to flee and he falls into ‘The Great Before’, where souls exist before they’re born. What follows from there is a series of surprises, so we won’t spoil it here.
The premise raises a lot of questions, the most pressing of which is whether any children are going to be interested in a jazz musician’s mid-life employment woes. Death and angst may not seem like natural topics for a film ostensibly aimed at younger audiences. But Pixar has set a precedent for both, perhaps most notably in 2017’s Coco, which featured another trip into the afterlife.
In dealing with existential meaning and other weighty issues, Pixar has made a radical departure from the usual messages found in big studio releases. Soul is a fascinating, occasionally muddled film that tries to grapple with what makes us who we are. So what is it trying to say and, given that director Peter Docter is a Christian, are there helpful messages that adults and children can glean from it?
Firstly, Soul is worth watching simply on its merits as a good story. It features all the beautiful animation and emotional moments that characterise the studio behind Finding Nemo and Toy Story, with a soulful (pun intended) lead voice performance from Jamie Foxx. The last few years have been patchy for Pixar, with a few too many drab sequels (The Incredibles 2, Finding Dory) so it’s nice to see the studio making something this boldly original. In many ways, this is a film of more subtle pleasures than something like Inside Out; it’s got the heart and spirit of the studio at its best.
Not everything about it works, however. It is a far more engaging film when it’s on earth rather than its more disconnected world. Some of the supporting characters don’t land well, most notably an ageing hippie voiced, bafflingly, by Graham Norton. In a film with as many ideas and ambitions as Soul, it’s understandable that a few jokes and moments fall by the wayside. Yet where this film really soars is the scenes on the sun-kissed streets of New York City in autumn.
African-American culture forms a rich backdrop to the narrative, making the Astoria neighbourhood of Queens feel like a living, vibrant community. Whether such details will be appreciated by younger audiences as much as its sillier scenes in The Great Before is less certain, but for those parents who want to watch something high quality with their children, this is a thoughtful, entertaining option.
Whose afterlife is it?
It would be easy for a Christian to take issue with Soul and its message. Pixar is owned by Disney, a studio that has become increasingly profits-driven as its power has increased. The resulting depiction of the afterlife feels like one that was run past a committee to ensure that it will offend the fewest people in the fewest international markets. Everything is very intentionally non-specific, never aligning itself with a particular theology, faith or worldview. Visitors to this vague astral plane include Moonwind (a new age mystic), Gandhi (a Hindu), Archimedes (ancient Greek paganism, presumably) and even Carl Jung (gnosticism). Perhaps understandably, the rules of getting in and out of this world are never made explicit, but it means that anything approaching a Christian view of life after death is nowhere to be seen.
This expresses itself, most alarmingly, in the depiction of The Great Beyond. All we see of it is a conveyor belt moving inexorably towards a glowing white void. Souls float up towards it then buzz like insects hitting a fly-killing lamp. Coco did something similar, deliberately dodging the question of an ultimate destination, as one unfortunate character just faded into apparent oblivion. Parents watching with particularly sensitive or imaginative children may find they have to have some discussions afterwards about death and what lies beyond it.
Is it all about me?
Soul isn’t all that concerned with answering the question of what lies beyond. Instead, it is preoccupied with what we do with our time on earth. Again, some Christians may take issue with the film’s presentation of meaning and purpose. When you live with an awareness of your identity as belonging to Christ, and your purpose as being a part of his Church and serving him wherever you live, any other solution comes up short. In this way it resembles The Good Place, a TV show asking similar questions that failed at the final hurdle to answer any of them satisfyingly.
Pixar’s attempt at an answer might leave some Christians frustrated, as it appears to be a self-centred message along the lines of worry less about purpose and just learn to enjoy the things in life that bring joy. There’s little sense that humans and their meaning and purpose all exist as part of something bigger; it perhaps even discourages such thinking, advocating instead for an almost hedonistic approach to life. Life is for living, so just enjoy it.
When you have experienced the glory of knowing Christ, such an outlook is obviously insufficient. We know how chasing the delights of the world can let us down. Viewed this critically, it would be easy to say that Soul falls short in answering some of life's big questions.
Eat, drink and find satisfaction
Perhaps, however, Soul isn’t too far from the Bible in its assessment of life. For a mainstream, secular film, there’s a lot that it does get right. It’s hard not to think of Ecclesiastes when, in a moment of triumph for Joe, he admits something that so few people rarely do: the fulfilment of his jazz-playing ambition isn’t everything he’d been dreaming of. In the part of the film where most narratives would end – when the mission is complete and he has achieved what he wanted – he still feels incomplete.
In depicting Joe’s thirst for something more, director Peter Docter draws on his own experience. His last film Inside Out was a massive, Oscar-winning success, yet it wasn’t enough. "My whole life was about this movie,” he told Insider, “Finally, it came out and luckily people liked it and it did well and we got some awards...and then I was like ‘Now what?’...That didn't satisfy me in the way that I was expecting.”
King Solomon, it seems, felt the same way. After listing his numerous achievements and admitting that he had all the “delights of a man’s heart”, he still wasn’t satisfied. In Ecclesiastes 2:11 he lamented: “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”
And while Soul is not quite so downbeat as that, the protagonist and Solomon do reach the same conclusion: “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil” (Ecclesiastes 2:24). While Soul stops short of attributing the good things in life to God, as Ecclesiastes does, it's fascinating to see these ancient ruminations on meaning emerge in a Pixar film.
This feels like a radical departure for Pixar, who regularly centre their stories on unique, special individuals rather than on an average Joe with a frustrating job. Director Brad Bird is particularly guilty of this, with films such as The Incredibles and Ratatouille focusing on elite individuals and their unique skills. The message of those films could be reductively described as: let special people be special.
Disney, Pixar’s owners, lean even further into individualistic messages, with tales of empowerment to embolden every young viewer. Answers are always found within, battles are won by people being themselves and becoming the hero they were born to be. Protagonists in Disney films tend to be aspirational but utterly inaccessible, with a message that never fails to be appealing and ultimately unsatisfying.
This is what makes Soul so remarkable. In Joe’s quest to return to earth, he begins to mentor a soul, known only as ‘22’, who hasn’t been born yet because she hasn’t found the ‘spark’ that gives her a reason to live. Joe needs to help her find her spark as part of his quest, but things go wrong along the way. At the crux of the issue is Joe’s fundamental misunderstanding of what the spark is.
As the stewards of The Great Before explain, a spark and a purpose are not the same thing. Or to phrase it another way, what we do is not who we are. What a freeing and exhilarating message to see depicted in a film for children! While it neverlands on where we should find our identity, which is perhaps too much to ask of a film like this, it makes a clear and compelling case that we shouldn't find our identity in our occupation or even our passions.
A film for now
Soul arrives at a good time. Originally scheduled to be in cinemas, it is instead available on streaming service Disney+ due to the pandemic. Although its vision of a busy New York with active live music venues feels like a different world, it is a film that is perhaps more relevant now than ever. Lockdowns, furlough and soaring unemployment can bring real disconnection and understandable discontent for people. This is a film that reminds us of ways that we can find contentment even when circumstances seem built to deny it.
Pixar’s animated wizardry can engage the senses in magical ways, transporting you to different worlds and cities where pandemics don't exist. When Joe admires the beauty of a sycamore seed spiralling through the air, bathed in golden autumnal light, the audience is hushed into a similar sense of awe. The fluffy, abstract ‘beforelife’ is pleasing enough to look at, but the depiction of the real world is the film’s greatest strength. It invites you to marvel at the simple pleasures in life and you sense that the animators are in love with the world that they are depicting.
The most powerful moment of the film occurs when Joe is looking back over the life he has lived and is remembering moments of delight that he has experienced: a hearty slice of pecan pie; a powerful moment in a jazz club; being washed as a child by his mother; sitting at a piano with his father. This one tear-jerking montage is a potent reminder of all the small ways we can find joy in this world.
As we face an uncertain future, and with so many moments of pleasure, from international travel to concerts, large weddings and birthday parties, taken away from us, it feels more important than ever to reflect on the everyday delights of living in God’s creation. It’s good for the soul.