image:Walt Disney Studios
image:Walt Disney Studios

Life is what you make of it: the beauty of Pixar’s ‘Soul’


Pixar has done it again, this time in a love letter to those suffering from existential dread. In recent years Pixar has increasingly employed the use of characters as constructs or case studies for the analysis of humanity, such as in Inside Out or Onward, but none land as effectively as this. Soul, directed by Pete Docter, follows Joe, a jazz enthusiast whose death separates his soul from his body just before his big break performing with a prestigious band. Aside from its heartfelt and impactful messages, enjoyment can be found in Soul’s beautiful animations, its star-studded cast, with performances from Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey and Angela Bassett, and its jazz-heavy score.

Soul grapples with various messages and themes, most explicit is its exploration of the pressure to find a niche. When Joe dies, his soul accidentally enters the ‘Great Before’ where human souls are born and prepared to join a body on earth. Each soul, with the help of an instructor, must fill up a badge of personality traits to determine who they will be. Joe becomes the instructor to Soul 22, who has struggled to find her ‘spark’ for years. The pressure of deciding what you want to do in life is heavily drilled into us at a young age and I, like many others, am still trying to figure out what that is, thus I resonated strongly with 22. Having no ‘spark’ in the film is ostensibly representative of a lack of passion or purpose but 22 comes to realise that her spark does not come from devotion to, or skill for, an external passion but rather from her appreciation of life and the act of living. 22 does not find excitement in music, sport, or a profession but in a leaf falling from a tree into her hand, from the laughs of friends as she passes a restaurant and from the general experiences of everyday life. Our hobbies and interests do not define us. The montage of flashbacks from Joe’s life is filled most prominently not with his passion for jazz, but with his family and love.

Soul reminds us that it is important to find happiness in life before finding happiness in what we do

Soul reminds us that it is important to find happiness in life before finding happiness in what we do. This is the first time I have seen this portrayed in a film, or at least with such an impact, and it could not have come at a better time. The pandemic has forced many people to adapt to new ways of life and leave behind the things that fulfil them whether it be their jobs, a sport, live entertainment or anything else that had become a crucial part of their day-to-day routines. Deprived of these passions, we have been challenged to find beauty in simply living as Joe and 22 learn to do.

The film also tackles a surface level, but effective, commentary on mental health. In the ‘Great Before’ beings who take the form of unindividualised black blobs are labelled ‘the lost souls’ and described as humans from earth who have lost their ‘spark.’ One blob is singled out to be saved, he is shown his life from an outside perspective through a portal that allows him to see himself on earth. He seems put down by the mundanity of his life and is reminded that living is more than just repeating the same routine every day. Upon seeing this, his soul returns to his body and he leaps up from his work desk with a newfound energy and appreciation of life. Mental illness can often feel like a loss of ‘spark’ and while it cannot be overcome in the five seconds it took this lost soul, the movie shows us that no matter how lost you feel, you are never truly helpless.

One of my only criticisms of this film is that I am unsure how strongly it will land with children. Unfortunately, as much as I wish, I am not a child so I do not know how they would respond, but it seems to me that the complexity of some of the themes and messages are aimed at older viewers. Pixar has always incorporated hidden elements in their films for parents and adults to enjoy through subtle jokes or references that go beyond kids’ heads. Soul employs this appeal to older minds heavily in the humorous flashbacks of 22’s previous instructors: famous individuals such as Ghandi and Abraham Lincoln are seen trying, and failing in fits of anger, to help her. These references and nods to history will go unappreciated by young children but enrich our viewing experience. Furthermore, all the characters that are depicted as needing to be reminded of the true meaning of life in the film are adults. So maybe this film really was made for us. Children generally maintain a sense of innocent fulfilment in the simplicities of their young lives, but as you get older the uglier and less idealised aspects of life reveal themselves. These burdens can weigh us down and often cloud our appreciations of the beauty of everyday life. Soul seeks to push that cloud aside.

Soul brings us the optimism, love, and well soul, that 2020 has been so deprived of

At its core, this film is the visualisation of the cringey hallmark quotes that you have seen so many times that they have lost their meaning: life is what you make it, love what you do and do what you love, life is short etc. By putting these messages into a heart-warming film, their value and impact is reinforced and felt by all who watch. Soul brings us the optimism, love, and well soul, that 2020 has been so deprived of. Take these messages into 2021 and try to fall in love with living again.

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