Disney brand images are known to be kids-appealing, where visuals are rendered in an adorable and simple style with a heartwarming storyline for children to believe that the world is a fairy tale. ‘Frozen’ (2013), ‘Beauty and The Beast’ (1997), ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989)…you name it. Of course, with the exception of Pixar, which produces films with complex themes such as pollution in ‘Wall-E’ (2008), death in ‘Coco’ (2016) and mediocrity in ‘The Incredibles’ (2004)–arguably the darkest and most adult-oriented Pixar film. And then came ‘Soul’ (2020), dethroning ‘The Incredibles’ with its heavy, thought-provoking theme about the purpose of life. It is still watchable for all-ages, but I believe the film would resonate to people who have lived longer as it brings questions about how we lived and accomplished something meaningful on Earth. This is depicted through Joe Gardner, a middle school teacher whose dream is to become a successful Jazz musician but never had a chance to. His time comes when he was picked for a gig at a club, only also to find his time had come to an end after being involved in an accident. Trapped between Earth and the afterlife, Joe must find a way to return to his body.
We’re talking about Pixar here, so for sure we do not need to doubt the animation quality. Yes, there are films like ‘Onward’ (2020) and ‘Brave’ (2012) where the animation felt similar to DreamWorks quality but ‘Soul’ is on the top-notch level. I believe this is one of the most difficult films for Pixar due to the concept creation of ‘soul-creatures’ without any clear basis reference while also needing to create a world that is universally accepted for all faith-holders. Preceding ‘Soul’, Director-Writer Pete Docter himself had succeeded in representing the complex human mind into simple ones that could be understood by all-ages, and his brilliance still shines on depicting the realm that none of us ever visited before into an engaging exploration. The animation successfully appeal through its cute, lovable design and colorful color palette but for us adults, the strength lies in world-building that connects through its philosophy that are so relatable to our life.
A surprising aspect that makes ‘Soul’ work so much is its soundtrack. Considering the story is about a Jazz musician, there’s no wonder that the film will incorporate the jazz-theme soundtrack, which is done beautifully by musician Jon Batiste that seems to put every soul into its songs. But the shocking revelation comes at the ending credit as I was astonished to see the name Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on the credit. These two are no strangers in the music industry, but maybe my mind was too attached to David Fincher’s ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ (2011) and ‘Gone Girl’ soundtrack featuring its electronic synthesizer that provide a grim, dark atmosphere to the film. They did break the convention through last year Fincher’s ‘Mank’ (2020), using only traditional instruments to create the authenticity of the 1930s Hollywood period. But I never expected them to score a family-oriented film, in addition successfully placing the soundtrack as an integral part of the film. It may not be as memorable as Michael Gianchinno ‘Up’ (2009), but still a work that evokes emotion linked to its spiritual feeling while also being cerebral that fits their style.
Pixar itself are known to have a strong story where the emotional core lies. Unusually, this is not the case in ‘Soul’, at least for me. I remember to always hold my tears back in most Pixar films, or the very least moved in my heart due to the character’s emotional moment or its power on a certain aspect (like the nostalgia in ‘The Incredibles’). However, even if those moments are present in ‘Soul’ it never really had a strong character attachment like other Pixar films. Instead, I found the film to have its emotional core in its philosophical terms. I need to admit, tears did flow several times through my eye through simple phrases. When a character asks ‘Are you ready to live?’ The memory of joy, regret, resentment, everything just mixed into an unexplainable emotion that I’m sure if I had lived longer on Earth would make me cry like a baby.
‘Soul’ doesn’t only question the purpose of life, but also ask questions about how much we accomplish in our life. Also, had we even lived every second in our life? This is why I said before that ‘Soul’ is much more likely to resonate more for adults than children. There is a scene in a subway where we saw passengers standing with a straight, lackadaisical face as they seem to lose the purpose of life, being a lost soul. Adults themselves could relate to this metaphor as there must be at one point where they do feel this way. And just how ‘Soul’ discusses education in a separate event does give relation and criticize how society lives in the modern era. There’s a moment when Joe had a deep and poignant talk with his talented student about how our education system ruins us all. The argument is strengthened further through the plot device of You Seminar, a center where all souls develop and gain passion before they are born into the world. (I won’t spoil more, but for the ones who had watched it would realize that this is a metaphor for our inflexibility of our education system). But just how Williams told the story of the ‘fish’, it also provides a reflection to the way we perceive our life. Not blaming about things that hinder our potential, but to see every little detail of it and create a ray of hope for the future, making this film a must-watch as well for children even if it does exceed the intellectual grasp.
As the credit rolls, none of the people leave the theaters. They all just sit, staring blankly to the screen. Presumably not because of the story, astounding animation and poignant music (although it deserves the praise), but perhaps just reflecting on their own life and what they had gone through until this moment. If this were made when I’m much older, having kids and grandchildren I might sob and cry loudly looking back to my life, either regretting wasting my time that made my life a failure or remembering the delightful, best moment of my life that made my life worth living for. But I’m glad it was made in this era. I do not know where my life will go. But I’m just starting, and I do know I’ll live every minute of it.