Header Ads

Finding Your Spark: Reflections On Pixar's 'Soul'


Kelly N. Barahona writes on Pete Docter's latest animated feature, now streaming on Disney Plus.


"This isn't the ocean," said the little fish. "This is water. What I want is the ocean."

No, the above quote isn’t a deleted scene from Finding Nemo. Actually, it’s an important recurring theme for the newest Pixar movie, Soul.

In an emotional sense, there's no doubt that humans share common core experiences. From hunger for food to hunger for adventure, humans are more alike to one another that they are completely unique. H-E-double hockey sticks, a lot of Pixar movies are about these deep-rooted sensations; one was even about the functions of emotions. We all are walking on personal but parallel paths in many ways, and our walks in life can often help others on their journeys. Pixar's Soul goes one step further on this topic, however. The movie shows viewers that "different walks of life" can, crazily enough, be figments from an afterlife (or a beforelife, as the case may be.)

To elaborate, let's start Jamie Foxx’s role: main character Joe Gardner. A part-time band teacher in the New York City region, Joe clearly loves playing the piano and musical expression. He yearns for grander projects to his name, and in some sense he gets just that when the middle school he works at gives him a full-time job offer.

His mother Libba insists that the teaching job is the best option; after all, the full-time job has pension AND health insurance. The movie brings up these details partially to make a joke about something “unrelated” to music being weighed so heavily in Joe’s decision making. But as Joe lives in New York City, it is genuinely hard to find artistic jobs with such benefits, so older movie watchers come to understand why the decision may not be so clear-cut.

Luckily for him, the same time Joe is given a full-time job offer, another exciting opportunity with famous musician Dorothea Williams and her band pops up. The latter is something Joe feels certain will offer him complete happiness, and while he doesn’t quite get the band gig right away, he does get the all important invitation to test his skills with the Quartet.

With this exciting band offer that overshadows the teaching job offer, Joe is excited that his life is beginning in a way that he’s always idealized for himself. The movie already presents an interesting dilemma: can Joe prove himself to the band, and if so, does it make sense to choose it over a music teaching job with job security?

However, Murphy's Law comes into play and in a flash, Joe's miraculous music moment goes down a hole -- a city manhole, to be exact.

Joe wakes up in a long line of souls entering “the light”, balancing on the edge of his physical existence and an ethereal one. Joe, and all of these other souls, have landed in the Great Beyond and have all (implicitly) died. Less than ten minutes in and the movie transitions from a down-to-Earth (literally) underdog story to a cartoony exploration of another world.

Yet, this tonal shift isn’t too tasteless nor annoying. For one, there is a beautiful integration of hand-drawn style in the transport scenes where Joe falls from Earth into the Great Beyond. It’s interesting commentary, too: is Joe the only one unaccepting of his death, or have other souls been just as reactionary before him? Was Joe’s placement on line to go into the light more intense because his passing has been abrupt?

Whatever the case is, while the audience somewhat knows this plot point from the trailers, Joe himself is not enjoying his nearing-ever-closer-to-death experience.

Not wanting to lose his Earthly music opportunity (which he believes is long overdue), soul-Joe manages to cross borders and lands in another realm called The Great Before. Here, baby souls (although age is all but a matter of perception) learn about Earthly matters, from different careers to personality traits to “sparks”. It is actually the “spark” that allows young souls to obtain their Earth pass and literally jump into a new life.

Not wanting to officially pass away, Joe poses as a mentor for new souls in The Great Before (also called the "You Seminar" by numerous authority figures named Jerry, and perhaps an accountant named Terry.) These workers treat the formation of complete souls with a blasé attitude. So what if a soul has megalomaniac tendencies and is scarily opportunistic? All souls end up going to Earth to live their lives, so the Great Before workers wouldn’t have to fret too much about the consequences of “risky” personality traits.

Joe is mistaken for a mental health specialist at the You Seminar, and one particularly rambunctious soul named 22 (voiced by Tina Fey) ends up becoming Joe’s new mentee.

Joe shows 22 scenes from his life in a museum-like display called the Hall of You. Upon (self-)reflection, Joe feels that his existence was meaningless, and 22 is similarly unimpressed. From the audience’s perspective, Joe’s life doesn’t seem entirely devoid of meaning, as he seems to have been a musician for rap groups in the past and is obviously managing well enough with his band teaching job in the present. Joe, however, is brooding over the rejections he’d gotten in trying to accomplish his music playing dreams. It reminds one of how inner insecurities are often not as noticed by outsiders but quite tormenting within. This sad mini scene makes Joe all the more desperate to go back to Earth and reunite with his body so that he can finally “prove” his life’s worth by playing with Dorothea’s band.

Not interested in the world of the living but curious by his desire to go back to Earth, 22 decides to help Joe reconnect with his physical form. 22’s Earth Pass is non-existent, however, as she has not found her “spark”. The two try to find 22’s “spark” in the Hall of Everything, to no avail.

Joe and 22 pass on by a section where souls “in the zone”, or real-world humans completely focused on a particular job or task, float about in a zen-mode. After some exploring in “the zone”, Joe and 22 go seek help in the outskirts of the soul world. There, they meet with a spiritual guide named Moonwind. Moonwind and his spiritual aides are all mystical healers that help “lost souls” find themselves once again, shown in a funny scene where a hedge fund worker realizes he’s alive and starts smashing work equipment in excitement.

Moonwind and friends help locate Joe’s body in a hospital through a meditation session. A little too eager with the process, Joe jumps back towards his body and inadvertently brings 22 with him to Earth.

Joe wakes up in the real world in a hospital bed, but finds his soul in a cat’s body and 22 in his human body. Credit where it’s due, it is nice to see a twist from a Pixar movie that ISN’T just about a mystery villain. Thankfully none of the trailers teased this plot point, either. Joe can talk only to 22, which is also an interesting bend on the “talking animals” trope that many Disney films, even into the 2010s, have been doing.

Moving along, Joe helps 22 move in his body so they can leave the hospital, much like a parent teaching their kid how to walk. Good news is that they are able to get some pizza, to which 22 enjoys plentifully. Bad news is that Dorothea Williams sees Joe in a hospital gown and retracts the band gig, thinking he’s too “out there.”

Joe, luckily enough, gets a clue that if he shows up for the gig anyway, one of his connections can try to talk Dorothea into giving Joe another shot. And Moonwind, luckily enough, just works in New York City as well. The duo of Joe and 22 agree to meet Moonwind before the band is set to play to swap the souls so that Joe can give it his all.

In the hours before Dorothea’s show, Joe and 22 do some errands together. From meeting with a band student who’s frustrated with music, to a trip to the barbershop to fix a botched haircut, to visiting the tailor and convincing Joe’s mom that the music gig isn’t pointless, each of these scenes discuss how dreams and passions aren’t always easy or straightforward.

For instance, 22-in-Joe’s body talks with one of the band students thinking about quitting, but ultimately decides not to. Joe explains to 22 that sometimes a passion for something -- say, music -- can be stressful, but those who truly love it will never really leave. This amazes 22 who was confused earlier about why Joe would want to keep trying if he kept failing. Later at the barbershop, 22-in-Joe’s-body talks to the barber Dez about personal goals. Here, Dez talks about how he originally wanted to be a veterinarian but had to change plans for his family. 22 asks if he’s unhappy because of this edit, but Dez reaffirms that he found happiness and belonging in his barber career. This also fascinates 22, who for almost all of  time has been led to believe that passion and “sparks” are strictly linear. That is, if you find a calling somewhere, nothing else can make you happy. This was seemingly the case with Joe’s band student too, yet Dez has also found enjoyment from branching out.

22’s personality while in Joe’s body, interestingly enough, is akin to a curious 35-year old. At one point in the Great Before, Joe questions why she sounds like a “middle-aged white woman,” to which 22 explains that everything in the Great Before is an illusion and anyone can sound like anyone else. But the voice direction is also important to the story for the moments on Earth.

The movie strongly implies in an early scene that souls are named by the number they came in -- the millionth soul born will be named “1,000,000”, for instance. By this logic, 22 has to be one of the oldest souls to have ever existed, and 22’s Earthly debut has been hundreds of years in the making. 22 is essentially experiencing Earth through new eyes after reading the textbook descriptions for thousands of years.

The most interesting conversation during Joe and 22’s errands is the speech 22-in-Joe’s-body has with his mother Libba. His mother is still against him going for the music gigs, for valid reasons earlier mentioned. 22-in-Joe’s-body (with cat-Joe’s help) ends up giving an intense speech about passion and how eating isn’t worth it if music can’t be a part of this life.

For someone so mellow and hard-to-motivate, 22 manages to not only portray Joe’s jazz jubilance as genuine but manages to be empathetic on their own terms, too. Libba is won over by the moment and agrees to help her son get an appropriate outfit -- his late father’s jazz suit, to be exact.

22 and Joe make it over to the club, and they reflect on what the past few hours have been like while watching leaves fall from the sky. 22 admits that they were proven wrong about Earth’s lameness because of the day’s events and that walking could be their “spark”. Joe disagrees, saying walking is too mundane to be important. He reiterates that jazz is something important, though, and that he’s looking forward to going back to his body and sending 22 home.

However, 22 is now afraid to go back to the Great Before because of how unfulfilling the latter seems by comparison. After all, 22's struggle in the You Seminar was finding a “spark”, but many of the offerings were muddled in some way: food couldn’t be eaten, pain couldn’t be felt, careers were either glorified or superficially touched upon. How can we know we truly like something unless we have directly experienced it? Even Joe’s character arguably did not like jazz music from birth; he had to be introduced to it by his father at a young age.

Moonwind comes to send the souls to their appropriate places, but 22 runs away in fear, not wanting to leave. A chase scene between 22-in-Joe’s-body and cat-Joe ensues, leading to the subway station. Thanks to the accountant Terry’s interference (as well as some lovely abstract visuals to show off Terry’s otherworldliness powers), Joe and 22 end up back in the Great Before. This time, much to everyone’s astonishment, 22 has gotten an Earth pass. This confuses 22, as she cannot pinpoint which “spark” made it change.

It makes sense why 22 would get their “spark” while roaming Earth, but this scene becomes sad when Joe insists that her “spark” was really his own because 22 was in his body when it happened.

22, upset with his harshness, gives Joe her Earth pass and wanders off. Joe manages to use the Earth pass to go back home to get back to the gig. He convinces Dorothea through another fit of passion to give him another shot. Interested by his determination, she acquiesces. Joe plays with the band and the evening turns out to be a rousing success.

Yet, Joe finds himself not fully happy with this accomplishment. Much like what would be seen in BoJack Horseman’s life, Joe has done something that he has always wanted to happen, but when it finally does happen it’s not as grand as he might have hoped. Whether it’s due to poor self-esteem or too high expectations on one singular moment being enough to fill a large hole (or a combination of the two), this moment of unhappiness following a “happy” moment is something a lot of adults and maybe even some kids can relate to.

Joe heads home and reflects, again, on the crazy day he had with 22 just hours before. This time, he pinpoints specific moments and scenes that brought him happiness by watching 22 enjoy them. Feeling at fault, Joe plays the piano and enter’s “the zone” once again, this time looking for his friend.

Moonwind informs Joe that because 22 was once living but now is not, they are now a lost soul. When Joe goes to help 22 out, he realizes that all this time that 22 has been internalizing negative feedback from previous mentors. What were earlier funny snippets of “mentors being frustrated at 22” becomes a big, broody, blob of bleakness to 22. For almost all of time 22 has been told by everyone that they would not have a valid reason to exist on Earth. The latest addition to this mix of moroseness was Joe’s insistence that life has a grand purpose, that little things are pointless, and that having a “spark” is all or nothing.

Of course, Joe had just realized that same night that even a “grand purpose” can be half fulfilling and half disappointing, and that life can have more to it than big goals and one-track minds. He calms 22 down by showing her a leaf from the tree they had sat by earlier -- a literal down-(from)-earth moment. He then tells 22 that a “spark” isn’t something one needs to have from the start; “that’s what life on Earth is for,” he notes. The negative spiral ends, and Joe gives 22 her rightful Earth pass.

The time has come for 22 to finally be born, but 22 is hesitant. Joe, like the loving mentor he has finally become, agrees to jump with 22 and go as far as he can go. 22 agrees and their Earth pass leads them towards a new life, somewhere in the world. It is very touching to see Joe finally support 22, as 22 throughout their Earthly errands had been supportive of his to-dos. It’s also rewarding to see someone get an ally after so long of having no one by their side. It gives soft reassurance that in life, sooner or later, someone will be a champion of your existence with no desire to be repaid.

After 22 goes home to Earth, Joe is willing to accept his fate in the Great Beyond. Luckily for him (Joe does have quite a bit of luck in this movie, for someone who tripped down a manhole and escaped his body), Jerry intervenes to tell him that everyone in the Great Before are appreciative of the work he did with 22. Jerry then tells him he can be given a second chance at life with a new Earth pass, and gently reminds him to be careful where he walks from now on. Joe accepts the offer and steps out of his apartment with a new lens of life.

Finally, the movie draws to a close with the title screen for Soul, the first appearance of said title screen as well. The movie does end ambiguously, as we the watcher don’t know if Joe decides to take the teaching job over the band gig. Perhaps that’s the point, though. Life doesn’t always have easy answers, and films don’t always have clear endings. Soul also makes the point over and over again that careers and one specific goal aren’t the only reason to live. Rather, it’s a combination of big feats, small moments, and adaptability to change that make life, and Joe who has realized that will ideally find happiness in whatever route he goes down on.

Incidentally, Soul’s director Pete Doctor also directed the 2015 Pixar film Inside Out. Tonally, some people have compared the two movies, but this isn’t really a bad thing. Actually, if anything, Soul is the grown-up follow-up to the active imagination of Inside Out, while still being all the while creative.

Some people have also compared the vibe of Soul to that of Coco. And yes, the two do touch upon similar themes of how past actions can follow us in life and through an afterlife. However, Coco was much more about the importance of family and togetherness, while Soul touched more upon self-identity and finding one’s place in the world, and questions if a specific “purpose” is even necessary to be in the world at all.

If nothing else, while the comparisons to other Pixar films will likely reign, Soul can hold its own candle and will be the talk for many years to come. It’s a very enjoyable movie that kids will come to respect more and more as they become older and realize how nuanced living can be. And it’s a movie that adults today can respect for showing the human experience anew, without having a preachy one-track moral or message.