“You can’t crush a soul here; that’s what life on earth is for.”
Since Pixar’s Soul is coming to us on Christmas Day, I can’t help but compare it to a present. This is the largest present under the tree. It has the most amazing wrapping paper and beautiful ribbons. We can hardly wait to get to it, but when we open it up . . . we discover it has clothes from Grandma. It’s not shabby clothes, but still ….
This really is a big package, as are all Pixar films. Not only is it Pixar, but it’s Pete Docter, who co-directs along with Kemp Powers, and co-writes with Powers and Mike Jones. Docter’s writing and directing credits include some of Pixar’s best: Toy Story, WALL-E, Inside Out, Monsters Inc, and Up. Originally slated for a summer theatrical release, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed it into the Christmas slot with in home viewing on Disney+ streaming service.
As to the amazing wrapping, Pixar always brings its A-game to animation. The animation here is a mixture of its familiar round seeming three-dimensional characters, astonishing realistic renderings of cities and nature, with some Picasso-esque art thrown in. Add to this the music. Jazz is integral to the story line, and it adds life, joy, and anguish to the film.
That gets us to the content.
Here is the story of Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a middle school band teacher, who has struggled for years to be a jazz musician. The same day he gets an offer to make his teaching job full time, he gets a call from a former student who now plays drums for a well-known jazz quartet that needs a pianist to sit in with them. On his way home from a successful audition, there is an accident, and Joe wakes up as a sort of peanut shaped being on a conveyor belt headed to a bright light—The Great Beyond. Not ready to go there, he tries running back, but ends up falling through a strange vortex into The Great Before—a park-like setting filled with new souls waiting to get their personalities, and most importantly their “spark”, before they go to earth.
The counselors of the camp assume he has been sent there to mentor a soul. He is assigned Number 22 (Tina Fey), a cynical soul who has burned through a plethora of mentors—some pretty big names among them: Gandhi, Lincoln, Mother Teresa, Copernicus, Marie Antoinette, and Mohammed Ali. 22 just isn’t interested in living. And as her failures to find her spark accumulate, she has settled into being a loner who will never go to earth.
Joe’s plan is to help her find her spark, then steal her ticket to earth and use it to get his life back and begin his career as a jazz pianist. But when the two of them get past the barriers between the worlds, 22 ends up in Joe’s body, while Joe is in the body of a cat. They can speak to each other, but naturally no one else knows that the cat is speaking. He must try to shepherd 22 though the streets of New York to try to find a way back to Before and set things aright. That process gives them both new understandings that tell us all that every moment of life is worth cherishing.
So what makes this clothes from Grandma? First of all is that there are a whole lot of concepts that won’t be understood by many of the children who see it. But that really is only a minor problem since I don’t think Pixar makes movies for kids. Pixar makes movies that will draw kids into the theaters (or in this case to Disney+). The real audience for Pixar films ais the adults who bring the kids. Since it seems like a kids’ movie, adults watch with their defenses down. We often pay more attention to what we overhear than what is said directly to us. Pixar makes movies that adults will overhear.
In this case, however, there really isn’t that much to overhear. Here the film is clearly aimed at adults. We see a character facing a midlife crisis. In one scene Joe tells his mother, “I’m just afraid that if I died today, my life would have amounted to nothing.” Some of the language may even be over the head of many adult viewers. For example, 22 explains that “I was a theoretical construct existing in a hypothetical waystation between life and death.” The only real façade of this being for kids is that it is animated. The usual multi-layered humor that is a hallmark of Pixar films is missing. I wouldn’t be surprised if children came away deeply disappointed in the film. There really isn’t that much here for them.
I also note in my Christmas present analogy that these aren’t shabby clothes. There are times when the message about the importance of enjoying the life we have comes through. Sometimes it’s when Joe is told that he is important to students. He doesn’t really seem to appreciate that, but we do. Perhaps my favorite scene in the film is when Joe (inhabited by 22) goes to the barber. The barber tells of his dreams that didn’t play out, but the happiness he has as a barber. It is something Joe needs to understand in his own life. But that revelation is actually countered in a scene about rescuing a lost soul—an account manager who is stuck in his job without having any joy. The key should not be escaping your life, but rather finding joy in it. In the end, we have hope that both 22 and Joe will have a chance to live life more fully than either ever imagined.
But the best thing in the box is the concept of the “spark”. Joe and 22 mistakenly think that the spark is a purpose that animates your life, as music does for Joe. But it turns out the spark is really more akin to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” The spark is the light we share in the world to light the way for other. Maybe Joe will share that spark through his music, or maybe through his teaching, or finding a way for both. But he now knows that taking that spark into the world is the real purpose in his life.
And yes, I suppose I should write Grandma a thank you note for the clothes. They are, after all, very nice and I need them. It’s just not what I really hoped for or expected.
To hear our conversation with director Pete Docter and producer Dana Murray, click here.
Photos courtesy of Pixar.