Warning: spoilers! And lots of ’em.
Some weren’t sure what to expect when Disney Pixar released the long-waited Soul (Pete Docter, 2020) to Disney+ on Christmas Day last year. Gone were the colourful graphics of cuddly monsters (Monsters Inc), toys brought-to-life (Toy Story), and personified emotions (Inside Out) – (that said, Soul does build on some of the ideas explored in the latter film, but we will come to that later). Instead, the unpretentious poster for Soul depicted a rather ordinary-looking man – oh, and a cat.
The man in the poster, Joe, (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is the character whose soul we explore all aspects of life – as well as the before and after life – with. We see his soul living in his body, travelling to the body of the accompanying cat, and as a bodiless entity stuck in limbo.
Our down-on-his-luck protagonist is a middle school music teacher and aspiring Jazz musician living in New York City, who finds his life changed when he gets the chance to audition as a pianist for a Jazz group lead by one of his idols. Tragedy strikes when he falls down a manhole and finds himself heading towards the afterlife. However, determined Joe isn’t going to let death get in the way of his big break.
Joe awakes on a conveyer heading towards the vague ‘Great Beyond’. Desperate to return to earth and fulfil his Jazz musician dreams, Joe escapes, but instead ends up at the opposite end of life – the ‘Great Before’, where new souls come to prepare for life on earth. And this is where things get a little trippy. Soul takes some visual queues from Inside Out in its beautifully animated depiction of the before life. However, compared to the latter’s invented mind, that brims with colourful thoughts and memories, the Before is a more understated place, representing the clean, new souls yet to be personalised by the experiences that life on earth will bring them.
Masquerading as a mentor for unborn souls, Joe is paired with long-term Great Before resident 22, (Tina Fey) a pessimistic soul that has no interest in being born and therefore agrees to give Joe her badge to earth if he succeeds in helping her gaining her ‘spark’ to earn it. Unfortunately, try as he might, Joe fails to find anything that may spark enough passion in 22 to merit her receiving her ticket to earth.
After a visit to a rescuer of lost souls, Joe finds a a way back home, where he lies in a coma in hospital. Disaster strikes when he and 22s’ souls become confused and his soul enters the body of a hospital therapy cat – and 22 falls into Joe’s body. Against her own will, 22 is born.
A determined Joe insists upon making his gig, but 22, despite her initial reluctancy, begins to appreciate the little things in Joe’s life that he no longer notices, and ignores cat-Joe’s instructions. No longer jaded by her never-ending stint in the Great Before, 22 inspires the people in Joe’s life with fresh insights, and is entranced by the everyday delights she experiences through Joe.
The two are dragged back to the Great Before by a pesky Great Before employee, where Joe is ordered to the afterlife. Instead, upon discovering 22 has now earned her earth badge – which Joe insists is down to her being inspired by playing the piano while in his body – Joe is given the badge by a dejected 22 and returns to life.
At long last, Joe makes it to his Jazz concert and performs alongside the legendary Dorothea Williams. However, after achieving his life’s dream, Joe is left feeling…slightly underwhelmed.
Back at home, Joe is hit with inspiration after finding a sycamore seed that 22 had kept when she was on earth. An impassioned freestyle on the piano finds Joe back in the zone of lost souls in the Great Before. It dawns on him how selfish it was of him to take 22’s chance of life away, and seeks to find her. Joe struggles to get through to 22, but using the sycamore seed, persuades 22 to return to life and be born in her own body.
Impressed by his ability to convince 22, the powers in charge of the Great Before offer Joe one last chance to come back to earth, and, this time, make the most of his life.
Soul possesses one of those brilliantly frustrating endings, such as in The Truman Show, that make the viewer desperate to know what happens next, while simultaneously realise that giving away anymore would somewhat spoil the story.
As stated earlier, some of the ideas explored in Soul seem to expand upon the world of emotions created in Inside Out – that there is more to life than what we can see before us. While Inside Out taught us that our emotions, like life, are ever-changing – an idea for young viewers to relate to, and hopefully find comforting – Soul looks at the bigger picture of life, and the over-arching meaning so many of us are seeking.
The meaning of the film, which in some ways is more relatable to its older audience members, slightly echoes that of Monsters University, for which Pete Docter was the Executive Producer. In the 2013 animation, Mike Wasowski ignores what’s staring him in the face (that he isn’t scary enough to be a scarer) in his single-minded determination to achieve his goal. By embracing his true talents and working cooperatively with others, Mike realises that there are other routes to achieving success and happiness. Similarly, in Soul, Joe is so focused on achieving his goal to be a performing jazz musician, he doesn’t notice the little things that make life worth living. Only when Joe achieves his dream does he realise that, as shown by 22, life should not revolve around a singe passion, but the many small passions that make up a person’s personality.
Younger viewers may see more of themselves in the character of 22, damaged by a never-ending loop of failure and rejection at the hands of her many mentors. Only when someone makes the effort to get through to her and show her just what life can offer, does 22 have the courage to try.
Despite being funny and witty, Soul really does pack the punches with it’s moral lessons. No Disney movie has ever made me sob like that – nope, not even that one scene in Up.
As a viewer in her mid-twenties, whose career isn’t going quite the way i thought it would and is feeling slightly underwhelmed by adult life, Soul is the reminder I needed – that in the midst of a global pandemic, with a low-paying job, and a life younger me would have found very disappointing – to appreciate the little things. Whether it be 22’s falling sycamore seed, the feeling of sun on your face, or that first sip of coffee in the morning, take time to enjoy it. Because then, if you die tomorrow, at least you’ve enjoyed something.