After years of films about animated bedroom toys, bugs creating coups d’é·tat, and talented chef rats, we are introduced to a completely new conceptual film. Pete Doctor, the guy that brought us Pixar’s “Up” and “Inside Out,” directed a new family-gathering favorite, Soul. For those who expect this film to be a kid-friendly jazz documentary: you’re in for a treat. Pixar’s Soul is a tribute to black storytelling that explores ambiguous theories of death, purpose, and the art of ‘jazzing.’
“Toggling between the two worlds, Soul finds a near extraordinary visual and sonic landscape.”
– Esther Zuckerman, Rotten Tomatoes
Not Your Typical Pixar Film
Initially, the story is set in a colorful, vibrant metropolitan town. The protagonist is Joe – a middle school jazz teacher. Joe’s initial conflict arises from his unfulfilled life goal: his big break. Joe feels like he hasn’t achieved his ‘purpose’ by landing extraordinary gigs where he can truly showcase his improvisations. As a result, his constant obsession with finding his ‘big break’ traps him in a rudimentary life. He’s in hamster wheel cycle of seeing his students grow, but not so much himself. However, once Joe receives a life-changing call, he falls into a sewer and the film takes an elusive turn.
The sewer scene is almost inevitable, since it would have been strange for Joe to suddenly find a solution to his problem at hand so early. It is at this point that the story goes from being linear to layered – opening different pathways of thoughts into viewers about what can happen next.
Joe’s sudden fall indicates his death, coupled with the death of his dream that he was finally so close to achieving. His human body is replaced with a glowing blue shape – a soul – as he is thrown into a dark void, feeling perplexed and asking the same questions that the viewers watching would definitely have. Terrified and alone, he realizes that he is on the road (an escalator) to ‘The Great Beyond,’ a euphemism for the afterlife. Is this what Eric Clapton was talking about in his song?
Not Ready To Die
To Joe’s surprise, he realizes that he is NOT ready for the Great Beyond. Furthermore, after many failed attempts to run the opposite direction ‘out’ of the void, he is sucked back in. The notion of death and the human mindset for it is illustrated here when other souls are also on the escalator, most of them peacefully accepting their fate.
The majority of these souls are elders, so it seems like a natural part of life for them. For Joe however, this development felt grim and he feels unprepared for death. He falls out of the void and into another dimension, called ‘The Great Before.’ This is a place where fresh new souls are born. Their fate is orchestrated by ‘soul counselors,’ tall, translucent two-dimensional Picassoesque figures named Jerry.
Perhaps the abrupt style change of animation is enough to deviate from the materialistic aspect of the film. Additionally, it also helps transition to these otherwise puzzling topics. Death is one of the world’s most perplexing matters. As a matter of fact, it’s usually uncomfortable to talk about. This is because it represents the unknown, as there are infinite theories regarding the afterlife. The film shows a beginning and end process in its theory, with the ‘Great Before’ and the ‘Great Beyond’ and the obvious life packed in between. Of course, the story shines when the interactions between the two main characters begin.
Two Souls Reborn…Kind of
Joe finds himself prohibited in the Great Before, so he is disguises himself. He acts like an instructor responsible for training a contemptuous new soul named 22. He must help 22 find his ‘spark’ so that he can enter the world. Those who don’t find their spark are forced to be labelled as ‘dark souls.’ These characters take on a monster form, scorning over the presence of others and obsessing over their own habits.
Joe and 22 find themselves rediscovering life in a way in which they hadn’t before. Their souls transport to current time where they continue their plan. The symbolic interpretation of the word ‘soul,’ first represented as the jazz genre and then as the spiritual part of a human being, now encompasses a third meaning: purpose.
In the past, Joe would zone out when he’d play jazz on the piano. This left him almost unaware of other people and surroundings. The act of zoning out is displayed in the film as a moment where people fall so deep into their passion that they’d dissociate – a psychological process represented in animation. He settled into a job where he thought he could fuel his passion for jazz, and nothing else. 22 was a stubborn ‘new soul’ who felt interest in almost nothing and was difficult to persuade. Under those circumstances, once the two team up, they reach answers by observing life through someone else’s shoes.
Homage to Black Storytelling
The barbershop scene is an extremely significant moment in the film. It illustrates the heartwarming effect and role that barbershops play in the black community. This is a safe haven for the barber and their client to hold conversations and repartee. Here, Joe had a simple routine – go in the shop, ramble on about himself, and then head out. After an unexpected switch-up, Joe’s soul is now trapped in a cat, and 22’s soul is in Joe’s body.
As a matter of fact, 22, begins finding amusement in the little things in life. He confidently sparks a conversation with the barber, Dez. In a part of this conversation, Dez teaches 22 (in Joe’s body) the value of the barbershop. He explains how crucial these socializations and sense of belonging are to the black community.
Immediately, their dialogue about life captures the attention of everyone in the salon, leaving Joe (in the cat’s body) feeling astonished and contemplative. He had never really cared to ask Dez about his life in the past, or to even start conversations with others.
Moreover, seeing the world from 22’s eager eyes allows Joe to start observing the world in a more wholesome way. Beauty and passion in the world came from connecting with others who also have their own aspirations. Ironically, both Joe and 22 had never really felt alive until this moment, where they were technically not alive. Joe and 22 were neither here nor there, but observant of life’s meaning through self discovery.
The Art of Jazzing
Generally speaking, jazz is defined as the improvisation genre, layered with various sub-genres. While classical music requires the player to perform songs in the exact way it was written, jazz allows for and encourages spontaneity, deviations, and collaboration with other musicians.
With 22 finally finding his spark, he begins referring to life as ‘jazzing.’ At first, Joe argues that there’s no such thing as ‘jazzing.’ Joe’s only connection to jazz was the genre, due to his tunnel-vision mindset prohibiting any other thoughts to enter. But the film actually engages with the art of ‘jazzing’ from the start. When complications arise and 22 feels guilty about being granted access to Earth when Joe isn’t, he loses hope. 22 mumbles “I never got my spark,” to which Joe replies, “Yes, you did. Your spark isn’t your purpose. That last box fills in when you’re ready to come live. And the thing is you’re really great at jazzing.”
Pete Doctors’ Soul illustrates jazz or jazzing as the metaphor for life. There’s no cookie-cutter system with clear margins or end goals. Finding your ‘purpose’ doesn’t resolve your problems indefinitely. That’s not what life is all about. By and large, Soul teaches us that there’s beauty in the unknown, unexpected flow of life in which souls, find the soul, in their soul.