By Bradley Lane
Pixar’s newest film is uniquely interesting for a myriad of reasons, the least of which is that it is the first Pixar film not to get a wide release, instead opting for a streaming premiere on Disney Plus. More interestingly, director Pete Doctor, of Inside Out fame, turns his attention from humanizing emotions to conceptualizing and visualizing death. Doctor has been inserting existential and emotionally-mature themes into children’s movies since 2009’s Up, in which its first 10 minutes explored the intimacy of marriage, trauma of infertility and the grief of the loss of a lifelong partner.
Pixar was always fond of adding adult-centered jokes into its films, but what Doctor has tried to do is make mature content central to his animated adventures. No other Pixar film takes that idea farther than Soul.
Joe Gardner is a middle school jazz band instructor with dreams of making it big and playing jazz for a living. However, Joe is already well into adulthood and finds both the economic and social pressures of his life too difficult to overcome while he is making little to nothing jumping from low-paying gig to low-paying gig. He all but gives up on his dream to play jazz professionally until he gets a big break from a former student sitting in with a famous saxophonist. However, immediately following securing the chance of a lifetime, Joe dies.
The film begins in earnest here, where Joe must confront the meaning of his life up until the point of his death to truly start living. A children’s movie so bluntly confronting the daunting topic of death is not commonplace. In this way Soul can seem intimidating, but the film’s imaginative perspective makes both the afterlife and, as Joe discovers, the pre-life a welcoming
and even friendly place. However, this conceptualization of life outside life on earth isn’t without its hang-ups; the film can get a little too focused on the mechanics of the world at the expense of the development of the characters. Despite this, if there is a standout aspect to Soul, outside of its breathtaking use of animated lighting effects, it’s the characters at the center of its narrative.
Joe is such a multifaceted and well-realized character that audiences can grapple with the entirety of his life, which is essential to the point of the film. While Joe is well developed and grows in subversive and interesting ways throughout the film, the surrounding characters, particularly his sidekick, can complicate that growth in ways that leave the central theme of
the film open ended in the worst way. The ending is less of an ambiguity to think about after the film ends and more along
the lines of a lack of a clear voice.
Despite biting off a little more than the film could chew thematically, the attempt to contemplate such an expansive ideology is still massively respectable in scope and enjoyable throughout.