Baring Pixar’s Soul



Spoilers throughout.


Soul may be a children’s movie, but two weeks later, I am still trying to figure it out. Granted, I overthink everything. But I like director (and Pixar creative chief) Pete Docter’s willingness to tackle abstract concepts (Up, Inside Out) so I want to know what he is saying.

The hero, a middle-school music teacher who lives for gigs playing jazz piano, steals my heart fast. When Joe, his head in the clouds because he has just gotten a gig playing with one of jazz’s greats, falls down a manhole, I am almost as disappointed as he is. I wanted this film to be about jazz, and the kind of soul privileged white girls who sing off-key can only see from a distance, because we think too much and suffer too little.

Instead, Joe misses the gig of his life, and his soul lands in the body of a therapy cat. Finally, Pixar has its first Black lead, and they turn him over to a cat?

This is a larger problem than me missing Joe. This is something that happens again and again with characters of color: They get turned into something else. A.O. Scott offers a jolt of a list: “The Emperor’s New Groove transmutes an Incan king into a llama, Brother Bear morphs an Inuit leading character into a grizzly, and Will Smith’s character in Spies in Disguise changes into a pigeon. Most infamously, Disney’s The Princess and the Frog transforms Tiana (the studio’s first-ever Black Disney princess) into a frog for the majority of her story.”

Another sharp criticism for Soul is that its Black lead has to be rescued by a White woman. This is not entirely fair, at least within the movie’s frame, because the character voiced by Tina Fey is not yet gendered, and its race at the moment is Blue-green. It is known only as 22 and confides, early on, that it has chosen its high squeaky voice just to annoy people. Yet because we know and love Tina Fey the actress, viewers instantly assume that a White woman is rescuing Joe.

Given people’s inability to suspend disbelief when a celebrity is involved, it would have been smart to cast someone nonwhite as 22. While obnoxious at the outset, the Blue-green ungendered soul does end up helping, and we have had enough of White rescues, which imply that one cannot reach an epiphany without the White imprimatur.

With his body comatose on Earth, Joe’s soul, desperate to avoid death, skids into the Great Before, a sort of corporate training center for life on Earth. Alas, its counselors are still riddled with human flaws, fake in their palaver, craven in their need for praise—another disappointment. A place full of souls ought to be beyond such bullshit.

It also ought to be represented in a way that suggests spirit. One critic dismissed the two-dimensional soul counselors as “squiggles,” but I like that they are outlines without substance, so all we see is motion. That seems a lot closer to the point than the blobby, Pillsbury doughboy souls.

But setting all that aside, I need to figure out the whole soul, spark, purpose thing—for myself as much as for the movie. Souls wait in the wings for their stint on Earth, their basic temperament already hard-wired. They await only one thing: the spark that will connect them to Earth. Before the soul is ready to live life, it must experience some love or joy or passion that until now, 22 has been too cynical (and perhaps a wee bit too sociopathic?) to experience. This makes lovely sense: They need an animating principle, if you will forgive the pun. Something akin to the quickening, in religious terms, or to Aristotle’s efficient cause. Something that will bring them into being, the way God breathed life into dusty Adam.

Instead of waiting for 22’s spark, though, Joe and 22 wind up coming to Earth without it. This is where it gets tricky, because they confuse spark with purpose. It turns out Joe has spent too much time obsessed by his spark (playing jazz piano), and there is a danger of getting Lost in the Zone. The film defines the zone as the space between the physical and the spiritual, which feels exactly right. But I shudder at the notion that those in the zone are not so different from lost souls.

As far as I am concerned, Joe’s time in the zone is the best part of the film. He is transported by his music, lifted above space and time, carried away in flow. I hope for such moments daily, like a surfer trying to catch a big wave. But because Joe has been obsessed with his spark, he has failed to appreciate his middle-school students and his friends and the sheer joy of being alive. So in essence, this is a film about the Romantic artist losing sight of the practical, everyday joys of life on Earth.

I remember once, after working an inhuman number of hours at a job I loved, standing in front of Dierberg’s deli counter in tears because I was so frazzled and hungry and it was already dark and I could not even figure out what to bring home for our dinner. We do have to be careful, those of us who love our work, that it does not drown out everything else worth loving. Free time, with its relaxed hours of just plain living and loving, is packed with more meaning and spirit than any masterpiece, let alone the usual slog that pulls us under.

Anyway, now that Joe’s soul is inside a cat and 22’s soul is inside him, balance is about to be restored. The transformation reminds me of those romantic montages, everything hazy and backlit as 22-in-Joe tastes life in a New York neighborhood and watches a maple tree’s seedpod spin in the sunshine. At last, 22 falls in love with life on Earth, all on the strength of a slice of pizza and a whirligig.

On second thought, there is also a friendship developing between 22 and Joe, and it is in savoring the parts of Joe’s life that Joe forgot to savor that 22 becomes capable of humanity. We live through one another more often than we know. We also pull each other back to life, just as, when it is 22’s turn to get lost in the zone, friends come to the rescue in a pink pirate ship.

In the end, after a few pangs of regret, Joe moves to altruism, because he now realizes that he has lived a full life after all. But wait—this question of purpose still hangs in midair. Because of his altruism, Joe is granted a reprieve, and you know damned well he’s gonna go back to Earth and look for a gig. Should he be careful to keep his rediscovered life in better balance? Sure. But I feel obliged to point out that he would not be nearly as fine a musician if he had spent a ton of time with the whirligigs.

Or is that just me, trapped by the Romantic myth? Does excellence require obsession? Do people have to give up nearly everything for their art, or their Olympic sport, or chess, or their inventions? I would love to say no, because such a life is both wonderful and terrible, consuming you and destroying proportion and perspective. But I have interviewed too many brilliant artists, athletes, and thinkers to believe they could have attained the same heights if they were laidback and well-rounded.

Is Joe’s purpose to be soulful enough to sacrifice his life for 22’s sake, or to be an amazing jazz musician, or just to live a full and balanced life? Maybe this is a movie about Aristotelian moderation—which is hardly as sexy as souls being chased by pirate ships and humans transported into ethereal bliss. If I were a kid watching the bliss of the zone, I would try to lose my soul.

“Those really aren’t purposes,” 22 is told about his newfound sparks. “That’s just regular old living.” I guess the message is to chill about purpose—it is enough just to be alive. Still, this is Pixar, for God’s sake, and meant to have a moral, and I end the film not sure whether I should applaud Joe’s jazz or bemoan all that he lost by focusing on it. Maybe the point is that experience must be the ground of art; that abstract musicianship is not enough; that relationship is the antidote to becoming monomaniacal. But I am afraid I just made all that up. Once again, I am overthinking—one of those dangerous obsessions the movie mistrusts. No one else seems fussed, which is probably why Soul was described as one of Pixar’s finest and “most ambitiously existential” films, and at last check, Rotten Tomatoes listed an approval rating of 95 percent.

In Variety, Peter Debruge predicted that this film would “leave audiences young and old imagining their own souls as glowing idiosyncratic cartoon characters.” I can hear my favorite rabbi’s weary sarcasm: “This is a good thing?” But as confusing and flawed as it is, Docter’s gentle version beats old-time Christianity’s vaguely holy ghost and bleak purgatory, with the flames of hellfire licking our insubstantial toes.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.