Soul is Pixar’s latest film, released on December 25th at Disney+. It is the twenty-third feature film from Pixar, a production company that debuted 25 years ago with Toy Story, stringing together one hit after another with computer-animated films.
The formula of Pixar’s success has been to make animations of a very high technical quality that are aimed at children’s audiences, but which contain profound messages for parents. In recent years, the psychological and philosophical messages of these films have become increasingly explicit and complex.
In Inside Out (2015), which like Soul was written and directed by Pete Docter, Pixar explores the interior of the human psyche through emotions, represented by colorful characters. In Coco (2017) we are shown the “beyond” after death, through Mexican culture and its Day of the Dead. What Pixar in Soul does is place us before the “beyond”, through the world of jazz and soul, irremediably linked to black American culture.
Soul and the meaning of life (spoiler alert)
The Great Before is a mysterious dimension where unborn souls are found, and where they are prepared by mentors to discover who they will be when they are born.
Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a jazz pianist who stands at a crossroads. On the same day, he is presented with two opportunities that will set the course of his life, depending on which one he chooses. Accepting a permanent position as an education officer, teaching music in high school, or continuing to pursue his dream of becoming a professional musician, playing on a trial basis for the band of jazz legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett).
Joe’s mother wants him to choose the permanent position so that Joe does not have the unstable and precarious professional life of his late father, who was also a jazz musician and a great influence on his son. Curly (Questlove), a former student of Joe’s who is very grateful to him for helping him discover his passion for music, now in the band of the demanding Dorothea, recommends Joe for the vacant position of pianist.
Elated by the concert that same night with Dorothea, Joe has an accident and falls into a coma. His soul is on its way to the “beyond” but refuses to go into the light and ends up falling into the “beyond”. There he is mistaken for a mentor and is assigned the task of helping 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who has not made the leap into life for countless years.
Her name, 22, is because she is the 22nd soul in all of human history and, despite being born hundreds of billions ago, she refuses to leave the “before” because she has a cynical and pessimistic view of life on Earth.
Over thousands of years, no mentor has succeeded in making 22 leave this dimension. Some of his mentors have been Mother Theresa of Calcutta, Copernicus, Abraham Lincoln, George Orwell, Carl Jung, Marie Antoinette, Muhammad Ali, Johnny Cash, Michael Jackson, and Gandhi. Now it is Joe’s turn to help her be born on Earth, for which he assumes they will find their purpose in life together.
The “Great Before” is ruled by quantum celestial creatures, all called Jerry, which take on forms evocative of Pablo Picasso’s cubism or the psychographs of Parravicini, the so-called “Argentine Nostradamus.” When these beings realize that Joe shouldn’t be there, they go for him. In their flight, 22 and Joe end up back on Earth; the soul of 22 in Joe’s body, and this one in the body of a cat.
During his stay on Earth, 22 begins to discover what it means to live, and Joe achieves his dream of playing with Dorothea Williams. Joe believes that in order to live, souls must find a purpose in life, and that 22 borrowed his passion for music to get out of the “Great Before.”
However, 22 rebels against him, just as he did with his previous mentors, and returns to the backwaters to become a lost soul. During this journey, Joe realizes several things: on the one hand he discovers that his goal of playing in a concert was not as important as he thought, and that you don’t need a purpose to live, but simply a desire to live life, with its good and bad things.
Joe returns to the Great Before to rescue 22 and decides to accept his own death so that she can finally start living her life. Thanks to this sacrifice the Jerrys decide to give Joe Gardner another chance to continue living.
According to the film’s co-writer, Kemp Powers, when asked what he was going to do with this new opportunity to live, Joe’s final sentence, originally, was going to be “I’m not sure, but I know I’m going to enjoy every moment.” This was finally changed to “I’m not sure, but I know I’m going to live every moment,” thus making clear the message that life also has painful moments that we have to go through.
The character of 22 is a reference to the paradox of Catch-22. In this case, the only way to know if life is worth living is by living it.
Because of the pandemic, Soul has been streamed directly through Disney+ and, unlike Mulan, platform subscribers can watch it at no additional charge. Pixar had not released a movie in December until now, but with clear influences from It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946) and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Soul enters the list of classic Christmas movies, with a vitalist and inspiring message.