A Review of Pixar's Soul
When I was a sophomore in high school, an ice storm hit the small Gulf Coast town where I lived with my sister and my parents. The electricity was out for two weeks in January, and so was school; we lived next to the fireplace and under bed covers as well as we could. The main problem was boredom; it was too cold to read, and television was like every other electric thing, gone.
This is probably the closest analogue I have to what is happening now to my children. As they are quick to point out, however, there’s almost no comparison. Yes we have electricity, and internet, but it feels more like the internet and electricity have us. The days are spliced together in between ten–twelve separate Zoom calls on three laptops, not counting mine; the temptation to switch to a video game during a call is almost overwhelming. I don’t blame them. I wish it could be over soon.
But among the endless screens, television is standing out. In the before times, I would limit time spent on TV, and there were no personal computers at all. Now, television stands out to me as the lesser of many evils. The ancient historian Herodotus tells the story that the Lydians invented dice games to while away a famine; I know my children benefit from the narrow focus of any simple set of rules to play around in, that takes their mind off the pandemic—for a time. But a story, any story, makes a contrast to the infinite repetition of a game. A narrative arc to behold is more complex than endless specificities of the game situation. Television is the poison I know, anyway. So I’m pleased when we can set aside the game and find a story to agree on.
The difficulty, as my children know well, lies in finding something I can stand to watch with them. They are more forgiving and agreeable than I am, and their tastes are more catholic. I am not really proud of being so inveterately cranky that I often have to leave the room or wear ear plugs when they are watching something I can’t handle. It’s not that I think that what they choose is actively bad—otherwise I wouldn’t let them watch it. It’s more that they hate it when I start yelling at the screen. I figure if they hear too much critique, they’ll start to hate criticism itself. Not accidentally giving my children misology is a personal goal. So if we can’t find something we agree on, we sort of sadly sit in different rooms, doing hug checkups every few minutes or so.
Things we agree on: Studio Ghibli. Things we can’t agree on: the Simpsons. Things usually on the second list: Pixar. But an ad at our bus stop convinced us to try watching Soul together, since after all, we’re also citizens of Harlem, as we used to be of New Orleans. I’ll confess I decided to move to Harlem not least because it was the closest thing New York could give me to New Orleans and its music, a place Louis Armstrong could reasonably prefer to where he was born. Ordinarily, Pixar’s intense love of emotional manipulation bothers the hell out of me. I truly hate to cry when I don’t feel like it, and these infernal people know exactly how to make you feel like it anyway. But at this cold moment in the pandemic, nostalgia for jazz clubs, live jazz clubs, sounded great, and in winter, nostalgia for the perfect fall is at the least, a change. So we sat down to it, together.
Soul has the epic or sort-of-epic quality that so much of the Pixar genre aims at. The set-up is that, as my youngest son put it to me, a guy has a great life in New York City, and doesn’t want to leave it—even though he has to make it all the way back from the underworld to prove it. Joe Garland is a pianist and a music teacher at a local middle school in Harlem. One day on the way to the gig of his dreams, he falls into an open manhole and finds himself on the way to heaven. Well, not heaven exactly, which is sort of the problem. A conveyor belt is taking him up to “The Great Beyond,” where individual souls seem to snap or short out in a radio burst once they reach a large colorless sun. Naturally, he finds this terrifying. He tries to escape. Escapades lead to his befriending a tiny soul, known only by her quite-early-on number of creation, 22, who’s never yet made it down to earth. (The numbers of new souls are now in the billions.) Together, they have adventures, hijinks, rivalry, and human-soul-accidentally-being-in-a-cat-body comedy.
Eventually and against all odds, absolutely of course, they both make it where they want to go: Joe back to his old life and the new soul down to earth for a first life. After all, this is a children’s story. But then, with my children sort of halfway forgiving me for yelling at the screen, for what? What is it about being alive, rather than dead or futzed into a giant pale star, that is so great? This is the film’s biggest question, and also the question that it can’t entirely answer.
The problem seems to lie in just what life is supposed to be about, exactly. Normally Pixar is not so much asking this question as implying it’s about emotional catharsis, taken neat. In Inside Out, the family’s move to a new city so disrupts the daughter’s emotional life and self-understanding that she almost runs away, disastrously; the catharsis comes when she, and her parents, simply understand that such transitions are difficult and their difficulty ought to be honored. Nice work if you can get it, I suppose. In Onward, two sons whose dad died of cancer put him halfway back together with a magic spell that involves them in great difficulties; the catharsis comes when they realize their love of each other is the better substitute for the lack of the father than the absurdities of bringing back your father with a magic spell. Impressive accomplishment for ones so young.
All these catharses contain a distinct lack of irony, however. Part of the reason I’m not as annoyed at analogous moments in Wes Anderson films, say the panoramic car crash scene at the end of Royal Tenenbaums, is that the awareness of the scene as also farce delivers you from the one-sidedness of a too literal breakthrough. The absurdity of the seriousness of the brothers in Darjeeling Limited, who take their spiritual quest into someone else’s country to work out their Oedipal feelings, gives the viewer the distance to see the moment in all its limitations, as simultaneously ridiculous and heart rending. Pixar demands that you rend your heart without irony or distance, simply as what’s good for you. The limitations of the characters remain light humor, nothing that can’t be overcome with a decent therapist or a hug from your mom.
But Soul, on the other hand, from the beginning seems like it could be different. After all, it’s a Harlem story, told from the comic but quite serious perspective of its frustrated jazz teacher.
Like New Orleans, the non-fictional neighborhood of Harlem is engaged in the struggle of trying to interest its youth in the intelligence and staying power of jazz as an art form, and as Joe Garland could tell you, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. This is Joe’s fictional problem: the film starts when he’s offered a full time job at the middle school, something his mother, a professional tailor, considers to be highly desirable for its stability : health insurance, pension, and so on. But at Joe’s school, the students he currently teaches mostly aren’t paying attention to his stories of the glory days of jazz. Also, with the exception of one trombonist, their musicianship is mostly uninspired. The family-emotional hook finds its situatedness here in a more concrete way by being connected to the larger problem of an art form worth saving. Being Black in America, as nearly all of the characters are, is at least not tokenism here, or limited to characters who are not even human, like Eddie Murphy’s dragon in Mulan. Now, the fact that much of the film is spent without bodies and without color in the underworld, however, feels like a cop-out; they simply don’t have to tell that part of the story for most of the film. Raising a problem only to get rid of it is artistic laziness. On the other hand, at least for me, admittedly with only an outsider’s relation to these struggles, the struggle to return to this specific music, Black improvisational music, as Joe’s father puts it, feels potentially more real—that is, if the storytellers can pull it off.
On the same day Joe’s offered the job, a former student, a drummer, goes out on a limb and calls him up when a famous saxophonist needs a pianist, and Joe has what he thinks of as his last chance. Teaching the youth is all very well, he thinks, but Joe’s a real performer, and has hopes that this will at last will be real life: Not the impotent struggle to communicate the beauty he sees in the music to people who are too bored with their institution to notice what he’s saying, but to a real audience, and most of all, to the saxophonist.
But then what is real life about? Can the love of music, perfected by the perfect gig, be enough? Joe struggles, and the underworld struggles with him. With the young soul he has awkwardly in charge, they search together above and below for the one “spark” that might qualify a soul for life on earth, given form in flat-footed style by an actual badge that the otherwise bodiless souls have pinned to their chests. Joe believes, as the underworld’s institutional propaganda ostensibly confirms at their seminars, that some one talent, love, or skill, ideally united in one activity, is the sole justification for life, and so of the badge.
But a random hell-minion, the well-timed intervention of a reluctant barber, and ultimately the plot suggest otherwise: once Joe has faced actual death to return to the remarkable concert in which he fantastically is able to participate at the last minute, to great acclaim from self, crowd, and saxophonist, he finds that he feels nevertheless flat. And so he finds himself in a classic Kierkegaardian dilemma, where the crowning moment of our identity we hoped to achieve in the pinnacle of success turns out not to be the thing we were looking for after all, and we’re thrown back upon the thinness of our bare self’s existence. The saxophonist counsels Joe in his sadness, suggesting that it is enough, or has to be enough, to simply play again another night.
But Joe, who has after all been to hell and back, is not satisfied, and he’s right to be so. Once back on earth, granted a second life by the daimons grateful for his help with the soul numbered 22, he struggles to remember why he wanted to be there. Finally, he finds it in the experience of existence itself: sitting on the sidewalk, in the glowing city autumn, looking at maple seed pods spin down, throws him forward into an appreciation of existence beyond all the drama of life and death. And so ends the film.
My children thought that the movie was, on the whole, good. It was a harmonious moment. The next day my youngest slyly suggested to us: what about watching another Pixar; we watched Onward again until he got mad at me for crying at the denouement. Mostly, our reaction to Soul was that we were laid low by our desire to get back to ordinary life in our neighborhood, back to the sort of school where, one hopes, Joe can continue to actually help the youth at, part time, while continuing to gain a name for himself as a musician of the top order.
Pixar did not write Soul to be viewed during a pandemic. But it does sharpen the weakness of what is supposed to be the saving moment of the story. Joe’s existential realization is, I think, at once a satisfying departure from the Pixar script, and also a bit of a philosophical failure. Joe Gardner, in order to appreciate the failure of his success, has to put on hold the possibility of his musical excellence as sustaining life-force, and return to mere existence—that is, mere existence as good. Now, I agree that this is so, that existence is on its own good; it is good to be alive. But existential catharsis is a tricky thing to handle; it is trickier than your desire to be loved a little more by your mom. And it only works when the sting of death is real. The mild, banal version of the afterlife given here, where everyone is blue and similarly rounded and has their personality tossed to them at random by supernatural nannies, is laughable without being funny. The divine comedy becomes supermarket melodrama. Even death here becomes a mild version of heaven, hell, or nothing at all: it is nihilism of the individual self in the opposite of the sun. But Joe’s reconciliation with life occurs without any real reconciliation with death of any kind, let alone with his individual annihilation. And so his reconciliation with existence is rendered moot, aesthetically and morally unsatisfying.
In the end, it was more satisfying that Joe made his concert on time, than that he was able to briefly appreciate the fall. After all, he’s supposed to be a jazz musician—a master of a kind of music excellent for focusing the soul’s attention upon the moment at hand, which the film’s music from Jon Batiste did marvelously well. To paraphrase Louis Armstrong, if Joe didn’t already know, what autumn leaves would allow him to find out? Likewise, the life of 22 is left unresolved—you’re left watching her speed off towards the continent of Asia as seen from space, fin, and my sons found themselves having a moment of their own screen-yelling at this unfinished conundrum. Knowing that she has “chosen existence” is not as satisfying as seeing her actually in existence would have been.
As the forever-time of pandemic lockdown suggests, existence is good, but the conditions under which it can be seen as enough are rare. I exist during the pandemic, but staving off death is not enough for life. In his Poetics, Aristotle points out that it’s not enough merely to present a character, or even life, but that an action is what we want: we crave to see someone doing something. We want to live, but also to act. This is the only moment where life becomes fully visible, and so likewise its goodness. I would like to watch a jazz movie with my kids about that. Or perhaps life rather than art could simply begin again, perhaps in spring.
Mary Townsend is a professor of philosophy at St. John’s University, Queens, New York. She has also performed the new classical music of Tucker Fuller at venues around New Orleans. Her work can be found at ChezAristotle. She invites you to follow her on Twitter.