I have been intrigued by Pixar’s Soul since the concept was first announced, and eagerly waited while it got pushed back from a June release, to November, to finally going directly to Disney+ on Christmas. My favorite Pixar movie is Inside Out and the trailers for Soul gave me some similar vibes – but also some hesitancy. Emotions seem like a difficult topic to take on, but the idea of souls and the “meaning of life” is really ambitious!
It is impossible for me to truly talk about Soul without spoilers – so if you haven’t watched it yet and don’t want to spoiled do not continue. It’s on Disney+ (no additional fee) so if you’re a subscriber I recommend you check it out as soon as you can.
I will begin by saying that I loved this movie. I’m not sure yet whether or not it will take the spot as my new favorite Pixar movie over Inside Out, but it’s absolutely up there. It also may not be a movie for everyone. But for me, it was what I needed this year.
The trailer for Soul asked “What makes you… YOU?” I expected something similar to Inside Out, but about how we get our personalities. But the movie actually asks even more questions than just that. The main character, Joe, states “I’m just afraid that if I die today, my life would’ve amounted to nothing.” The idea of your “purpose” in life is brought up a lot. I’m going to dig into this review assuming you have already watched it or at least know the basic plot of the movie.
I occasionally get personal on my blog, so if you read everything I write or know me personally you probably know that I have some mental health struggles with anxiety and depression. This year has been hard for so many people in so many ways, but especially the past two months I’ve been feeling incredibly disheartened. I’ve googled variations of “what is the point of being alive” more times than I can count. (Not in a suicidal way, just in a way that I’m genuinely struggling to figure out how to live my life to feel at least moderately happy and fulfilled). Little did I know that in a way, Soul would ask these same questions.
Humor in Soul
Before getting into some of the more existential issues of the film I wanted to talk about some of the other aspects! To begin with, it definitely has a good dose of humor. I think moreso for adults than kids but there is plenty to make people of all ages laugh. Kids will enjoy things like the souls “pooping” out their pizza slices (since they don’t have bodies everything literally just goes right through them). Adults will probably laugh at lines like “You can’t crush a soul here – that’s what life on earth is for.”
Music and Visuals of Soul
I am mostly focusing on the ideas in Soul in this review, but there are plenty of other great things about the movie worth mentioning. The soundtrack is wonderful. Of course it’s very jazz-heavy, as that is Joe’s passion. But it’s not just the moments he’s performing, it’s how the music even in the background ties into all of various moments of the film. The visuals are great too, from the chaos of New York City to the “Great Before” where the souls are. I can really only say positive things about the music and animation of this movie.
Voice actors in Soul
I have no real complaints here. Jamie Foxx is a perfect fit for Joe. Tina Fey voices 22 and I think she works well for the character, though I wonder if there could have been a better choice. 22 is a soul who has no body – therefore 22 does not yet have any sort of gender-identity, race, etc. Nevertheless it is hard not to think of 22 as a white woman even though they address this in the film. 22 explains that they could choose any voice they want but they went with this one because it “seems to annoy people” (hehe). It’s a minor thing but I wonder if someone with a bit more of an ambiguous voice would have been a better choice?
Graham Norton has a great, distinctive voice as Moonwind, I loved him. Same goes for Rachel House as Terry – I don’t know what it is but the voice of this character was just so interesting and I loved listening to it. Daveed Diggs has a small part and I really wish he had a character with a bigger role because he is great. Phylicia Rashad is of course perfect as Joe’s mom.
What is a “Soul”?
Pixar is taking on a big topic tackling the idea of souls, but I think they do it in a way that makes sense and is entertaining as well. In some ways souls are our personalities before we are born. While our circumstances often help us develop our personalities, the concept in this movie is that we have certain traits before we are even born – things like being excitable, aloof, cautious, flamboyant – even a “manipulative megalomaniac who’s intensely opportunistic”. They also have something called a “spark.” A spark could be music, a sport, a hobby (photography is shown) or something else.
But what is a “spark”? Well, Joe conveniently drifts into a daydream right when they are going to tell us what it means – and as result the whole movie changes. Joe takes spark to mean your purpose in life. But it’s not as grand as that. A spark seems to be more the reason why a soul wants to go to earth. A reason why they want to live. It feels like a subtle difference but it’s actually pretty major, and an important part of the film.
The “message” of Soul
One of the key mistakes that Joe makes through this movie is thinking he has some grand purpose in life. For him, he thinks music is his purpose. It’s why he was brought to earth and what he was meant to do. But music isn’t his purpose, it’s his spark. What’s the difference? One of the soul counselors tells us “A spark isn’t a soul’s purpose. Oh, you mentors and your passions. Your purposes. Your meanings of life. So basic.”
We don’t get an explanation word for word but here is my conclusion: having a purpose in life involves the idea that you are meant to live for some specific reason and to bring something to the world. A spark isn’t your purpose, it’s what makes you want to live.
This is not necessarily a concept that we embrace as a society. From the time children are young we ask them what they want to be when they grow up – we are led to think we have some purpose in life. But Soul looks at things differently. Humans don’t have a predetermined path and you don’t have some big objective that you need to achieve. Life is about finding your spark, or moments of sparks. You don’t necessarily have to have a job that completely fulfills you, the perfect picket-fence house, the perfect life. Rather you should focus on those moments where life truly feels like it is worth living.
If forced to sum it up in one message I would say that “life is about the journey, not the destination.”
Is Soul for Kids?
I work with a lot of elementary and middle school aged kids and one thing I have learned is that I cannot always guess what will and won’t go over with them. A lot depends on the individual child as well. I think kids will generally get the basic concepts in the movie. Depending on the age they may not get a lot of the nuances of the theme, but I think at least older kids will catch on to the idea that you can find joy in simple things (like pizza!). I imagine they will also recognize the importance of Joe’s relationship with his mother and other such things.
And there are other aspects of the movie besides theme that I think will be appealing to kids. There are plenty of funny moments as I mentioned above. The cat is sure to win over many youngsters, and the little souls in the Great Before are childlike and silly. You might not expect jazz music to be a favorite with kids but I have a few friends who have already commented that their children loved the music.
As far as anything inappropriate, you don’t get anything too violent, sexual, language, etc. The main character dies/almost dies, and the word hell is repeated a few times but otherwise we’re pretty squeaky clean. The appropriateness is more going to center on what sort of questions kids might ask about life and death and how comfortable you feel answering those.
Why I needed this movie
I am 32 years old yet I find myself recently in something of a “mid-life crisis”. You get to a point where you’ve kind of achieved all the things you were told you were supposed to do – having a full time career, getting married, buying a house. I suspect that if we had kids I would be hitting this moment more towards the actual mid-life portion of my life, but since that’s not in the cards for us here I am. Even as I come up with projects and goals for myself, I can’t help but hear a little voice in the back of my head asking “Why?”… or, even worse sometimes: “Why bother?” The pandemic has certainly made these feelings more pronounced this year.
When they are trying to help 22 find their spark, Joe suggests being a librarian. (For anyone who doesn’t know, I am a librarian!). On the plus side, Joe does at least throw in the statement that “they’re cool.” 22’s response is “Yes, amazing – who wouldn’t like working at a thankless job you’re always in danger of losing due to budget cuts?” It’s definitely a funny-because-it’s-true line, but I can’t say it’s not a thought I grapple with a lot. Especially this year when we have faced a lot of budget cuts, it’s been stressful and felt really thankless at times. I do get joy out of my job (at least during non-pandemic times), but I also have questioned if it is my “purpose”, so right from the beginning this movie seemed to capture a lot of my feelings and questions.
At one point when 22 hits a low point they run through the street yelling “Leave me alone! I’m trying to find my purpose!” And if that’s not a mood in 2020 I don’t know what is.
Ultimately the movie ends with Joe concluding “I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life – But I do know I’m going to live every minute of it.” And I think that’s where I am, and what I needed. It feels a little silly that it took a Disney movie for me to see it, but I’m also not surprised. I’ve learned that life is unpredictable and you never know what might happen. I don’t have to plan for some ultimate purpose or meaning of life. But like Joe, I’m going to try and actually live my life as much as possible. Even experiencing the things that aren’t always positive – letting myself feel completely. Pursue those sparks of joy, whether they are fleeting or more permanent.
That, at least, is the goal – though of course it’s not going to be easy. But Soul is a movie that shows just how intricate the human experience is, how relatable our struggles are no matter who you are, and how important it is to appreciate the moments that life gives us.
Have you seen Pixar’s Soul? What did you think of it?
Emily Bendler says
I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I plan to. I find that no one has one big purpose throughout their entire life. I think it’s more helpful to find purpose in the things you do and to do things that make the world better regardless of scale.
The Animation Commendation says
Great review! As you know, I like the film well, but don’t love it.
I think what’s interesting about Rachel House’s character, at least for me, is that this is the first animated character I’ve ever heard w/a New Zealand accent. And I’m sure it’ll be the first for many people watching this film as well, so I think that’s why her voice and character stand out.
I was really surprised by how good Graham Norton was.
Debbie Kolacki says
I really enjoyed this movie although its message is one we’ve heard before. (“A Wonderful Life,” Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle,” the expression “Stop and smell the roses” are just a few examples that quickly come to mind.) Yet it’s a message we need to hear again and again, as we forget it again and again. I thought this was an original and clever movie with this message. I know some people are complaining that kids won’t understand it, but I don’t think you need to understand it to enjoy it. I think of “Fantasia” and how it’s easy to just sit back and enjoy the music and images of that movie without going into deeper meanings. BTW, I posted the quote below on Facebook a few weeks before “Soul” was released.
Sometimes you have to let go of the picture
of what you thought it would be like
and learn to find joy in the story you are actually living.
-Rachel Marie Martin