Disney and Pixar’s Soul could be a perfect knockout, but it plays things too safe.
The new film is appealing in all dimensions. The animation is, as we’ve come to expect from Disney and Pixar, stunning, and the voice actors do a phenomenal job at delivering this brilliantly written tale. It almost goes without saying that the level of quality from these two studios is bound to be superb.
However, I have an issue with the story’s arc. This contains spoilers.
My major gripe with the film is its end: Soul’s one fatal flaw is that Joe lives.
Middle school music teacher and aspiring Jazz musician Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) finally gets his break with an invite to a big gig, but then falls down a manhole before he gets the chance to play. He finds himself in some sort of afterlife as a soul heading into the Great Beyond.
At the end of the film, Joe accepts death. He’s on the path to the Great Beyond, closes his eyes, and smiles, when all of a sudden, Jerry (Alice Braga), calls out Joe’s name.
She tells Joe, “We’re in the business of inspiration, Joe. But it’s not often that we find ourselves inspired. So, we all decided to give you another chance.” And just like that, he escapes death.
The business of inspiration? I don’t think life and death is in the business of inspiration, and I think I’ve come to that conclusion because of Soul. We’re shown that inspiration or a ‘spark’ is simply that—a spark, not what you’re meant to do for the rest of your life. Joe’s spark is jazz, but he confuses it with his “sole purpose.” But life is far too complex and incalculable to have only one purpose, even one as polysemantic as ‘inspiration.’
22 (Tina Fey) is inspired to live by mundane things we usually take for granted, and in that way, maybe Soul teaches us that life is in the business of inspiration. However, I think the ‘business’ they’re in is simply life—a life where Joe, after his climactic performance, tells Dorothea: “I’ve been waiting on this day for my entire life. I thought I’d feel different.”
Dorothea provides an analogy: “I heard this story about a fish. He swims up to this older fish and says, ‘I’m trying to find this thing they call the ocean.’ ‘The ocean?’ says the older fish. ‘That’s what you’re in right now.’ ‘This?’ says the young fish. ‘This is water. What I want is the ocean.’”
If the umbrella term they want to put this experience under is ‘inspiration,’ then so be it, but it seems misplaced. The film presents ideas that contrast one another. We learn that inspiration is core to life, but also that inspiration is potentially meaningless.
Terry asks Joe how he will spend his life. He tells her in the final line in the film: “I’m not sure. But I do know I am going to live every minute of it.”
I think this message is wonderfully important, especially right now. In the times we’re living through—times when Disney had to release Soul via Disney+ rather than theatres—it felt like a breath of fresh air to hear those words. But I’ve heard them before.
I think, ultimately, there was room to take a profound creative risk in either having Joe stay dead or having him die at the end. A version of Soul exists in my head where Joe either dies falling down a manhole, or dies playing the piano at the end, and we’re left to reflect on the indifference of the universe and accept it. That’s a serious lesson to learn, and one that I’m not sure has been taught in a children’s film yet. Whether Joe achieves his goals or not, his life was beautiful. Life, in all its glorious indifference, is immeasurably beautiful.
The film plays it too safe and hangs its hat on a boring concept. I don’t know what it means to have a ‘second chance’ at life in a world so deprived of them, and I’m not sure if that’s an appropriate message. The film could have advocated to live life to the fullest while making a profound and important statement on the indifference of the universe. Instead, we learn to only live life to the fullest when there’s potential for more.
While Soul is incredible, it opted to remain a standard Disney film when it had the potential to transcend that status. For a movie about jazz, Disney and Pixar could have been a little more experimental.
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