I'm not crying, you're crying.
It could have been easy — a Pixar movie about living every day to the fullest with creative animation and a moralistic lesson about who and how to be. I watched Soul because everyone was talking about it, but this is what I expected. What came was surprisingly complex, carefully crafted, and exactly the movie we all needed to end 2020.
In 2015, everyone was talking about a Pixar animated film called Inside Out. Somehow, maybe taking their younger relatives to see it or walking into a theatre with an edible and nothing else to do, everyone had seen it, not just kids.
And everyone loved it.
Suddenly, a children's film about the complexity of emotions was telling everyone about themselves. What was remarkable about Inside Out was that it talked to its audience without belittling them and did what the best children's movies do: told a smart story in an accessible way.
The unintended effect was how well it was received by adults alike. Inside Out approached emotions in a way which felt hopeful, yet opposite to grind culture or what has become known as "toxic positivity." Soul comes from the same creators to continue the same work — examining our inner lives.
(Spoilers ahead! Turn back, watch Soul, then return!)
In Soul, Joe Gardner, a jazz pianist and middle school band teacher from New York City voiced by Jamie Foxx, finally gets the shot of his life, a chance to play in a famous Jazz quartet. In his excitement, he falls into an uncovered sinkhole (thanks, de Blasio) and dies. On his way to The Great Beyond, he tries his hardest to get back inside his body to make it to his gig.
Posing as a prenatal mentor for unborn souls, he is paired with 22, an unruly soul who has refused to go down to Earth since pretty much the beginning of time. They figure out a mutually beneficial agreement: They get 22 her "earth pass" and give it to Joe, so he can go down to Earth instead of her.
After a series of missteps, 22 ends up in Joe's body while his soul is trapped in a therapy cat. The two go on a journey to get Joe back into his body and find 22's purpose.
Okay. Makes sense. So why is everyone freaking out about it?
22, Joe, and Moon Shadow in the Great Before
Besides being undeniably entertaining, and the animation serving as a reprieve from watching the spectacle of real human bodies in real life or competing Christmas movies like Wonder Woman 1984 (as if Gal Gadot needed to subject us to more terrible content; wasn't that "Imagine" video enough?), Soul taps into a hopefulness that we needed this year without the empty platitudes we've been getting.
Instead of meek offerings of indistinct happy endings, Soul offers no such easy answer. There is only this: the joy of being alive, having the little that we have — a New York slice, a helicopter seedling falling from a maple tree.
But the film doesn't shy from the bad. The reason 22's character is so averse to finally becoming a person is that she's seen the bad. From the collapse of major civilization to daily human unkindness, she wants no part in it.
There's a sector of the spiritual realm that 22 spends time in that is just filled with souls who live between life and death, obsessing over something until it takes them over. Sometimes these are hedge fund managers lost in the minutia and trapped by the relentlessness of capitalism, but sometimes these are people obsessed with more ephemeral pursuits less easily moralized as bad, like one's proverbial 'purpose'.
In this comes one of the most spectacular truths of the film, one which seems kind of out of place for a Disney and Pixar effort: No one has a purpose, a calling, a thing they were meant to do.
For all the age-old Disney conditioning to follow our dreams and destinies, no matter the cost, Soul offers the realistic truth that we all just do what we can do, and the best of us find the small joys where we can.
Joe, who has spent his life believing he was meant to play Jazz, is so devastated by his death because it happens right at the brink of the thing he is certain will fulfill him. Though he is admittedly a talented, passionate musician, he learns that this moment of recognition, his moment in the sun, cannot be enough.
Each time I expected Soul to veer into the familiar, it resisted the turn. When Joe realized music was not his calling, I thought I knew how the rest of the film would go — oh, I thought, of course now he's going to realize that teaching is his calling, but as much as it pains me to admit (I'm an Aquarius), I was wrong.
To fill the void with teaching, to put all his hopes on one thing, would be to still have the void, to be subject to the volatility of a dream unfulfilled. After his second death — Joe goes through a lot — Joe looks back at his life and sees not the sad emptiness he thought he was leaving, nor the close dream of being a musician, but small moments of satisfaction that depend on nothing to anchor them.
Instead of evaluating his life through a lens of success or failure, either the pursuit of passion or the death of the dream, Joe sees/values his life through diner pies, passionate students, and the people he loves who love him in return.
In Soul, there is more to a life than the self, even in the pursuit of a dream. The film shows the audience what Joe can't see until the end: those tender moments in the barbershop chair, the student who finds inspiration in a teacher — these are what we live for.
Joe Garnder and his dad in "Soul"
In this way, it does feel like a Disney film. As does the happy ending, though that feels hard earned.
Soul is a feel good movie that leaves behind more than a transitory good feeling. It's thoughtful nuance allows us to wish for more while appreciating what we have.
In 2020, the lesson of the film, one of acceptance and community, was especially needed. Joe's blinding pursuit of existential desire feels familiar — don't we all feel like we're meant to be doing something else, like we deserve something bigger?
But Soul tells us that this is not the case — that there is no real life that we are being kept from, no other version of our lives where we get what we deserve.
Instead, there's only this. And though it can be hard and sad and bad, there are still helicopter seeds falling off the trees; there can still be joy.
Watch the official trailer below:
Disney and Pixar's Soul | Official Trailer | Disney+ www.youtube.com