The journey of life. Are we always prepared for what is to come?
On Christmas Day 2020, Pixar’s Soul – unable to be shown in theatres due to the coronavirus pandemic – released on Disney Plus.
Notable as the first Pixar film to feature a black protagonist, it tells the story of Joe, a discontented middle-school band teacher who finally gets his big break: a chance to play with an eminent jazz musician. From the outset, it would seem this is the focus of the story, a man and his relationship with jazz. But it is so much more.
Joe accidentally falls down a manhole, and eventually ends up in the Great Before: a conceptual place where new souls are prepared for life, finding their ‘spark’ before they begin living on Earth. Committed to getting his life back as it had only ‘just started’, Joe makes a deal with 22 – a soul who wants to avoid human life entirely – to help find her spark and allow him to go back to Earth in her place. Through a mishap, 22 ends up in Joe’s body, and Joe inside the body of a cat. From this perspective he witnesses 22 navigate through his life, trying out the human experience for the first time.
By the time Joe and 22 fall into this situation, the film feels very different to the one we were shown at the beginning. While the plot entertains the audience with the hijinks of an unexperienced soul taking charge of a body in the human world, the underlying themes of the story are dripped into the narrative with great care and subtlety.
From the beginning we can tell that Joe is unhappy with his life. A very telling scene features Joe’s ‘Hall of You’, showing a selection of moments from his life. We see him slouched in a chair watching TV, looking fed up, then we see him with the same expression sweeping a floor. We witness several rejections from piano auditions. When he asks who curated this exhibit, 22 replies, ‘You did’. Upon first viewing, this seems to be primarily for humour or exposition, but later comes to mean more.
Though 22 is initially repulsed and frightened by both living in a body and living in the world, she begins to take interest in things around her. She is delighted by the taste of her first slice of pizza, gleeful when receiving a lollipop at the hairdressers. She holds curious, animated and honest conversations with Joe’s promising jazz student, as well as his barber. She is entranced by a helicopter seed that falls from a tree above and lands in her hand.
As the pair are about to return to their original forms, 22 is suddenly overcome with the urge to find her spark. She expresses her love of ‘sky-watching’ and walking, but Joe tells her these aren’t purposes, they’re ‘just regular old living.’ Desperate to find her spark before they switch back, 22 flees with Joe’s body. Where she was terrified of living, she now appears equally afraid to lose her chance.
We later learn that 22 has found her spark, but Joe insists this is because she was inside his body. Defeated, she gives him her Earth pass, allowing him to return to his life. He plays successfully with Dorothea Williams and her band, but after learning that they’ll repeat the performance night after night, is surprised to find himself feeling unfulfilled.
He expresses this to Dorothea, and she shares a story about a fish who is looking for the ocean: ‘“The ocean?” says the older fish, “that’s what you’re in right now.” “This,” says the young fish, “this is water. What I want is the ocean.”’ She then leaves Joe, and the audience, alone to think on this tale. It’s a moment that perfectly encapsulates the mentality that Joe has been living with, and one that is shared by almost every person on the planet.
By Leyla Resuli: Arts Columnist
a conceptual place where new souls are prepared for life, finding their ‘spark’ before they begin living on Earth.
MACKAYAN: PIXAR’S SOULTweet
The notion that productivity and achievement are the very core of human life is a Capitalism-fuelled message, one which has been drummed into our brains from birth.
In school we are pressed to find our ‘passions’ and decide what we want to do in life, following the path to our ‘dream career’. Especially in recent years, schools have become more and more results-driven, leaving many young adults lost in the post-education world. These people have staked their value on entering their ‘dream career’, so that when this is not possible or doesn’t live up to expectations, they are completely disaffected and disillusioned.
Even if it isn’t explicitly said, the message we have been taught is clear: achievement is the key to unlocking happiness. However, the fact is that life does not follow such a straightforward formula. While circumstances of course affect our lives and our moods, happiness is not a goal to be reached. It is a state of being.
The most beautiful scene in the film is presented when Joe returns home from the gig. He settles at his piano, and empties his pockets of things that 22 picked up: a spool of wool from which his mother made his suit, a lollipop from the hairdresser, the crust from the pepperoni pizza she tried, and the helicopter seed.
He begins to improvise a gentle, thoughtful piece as he allows himself to experience these memories again. We also witness memories of his life that we haven’t seen before: Joe as a child, awestruck from fireworks, then delighting in the sunshine on his face while cycling down the street. We see him as an adult, enjoying a slice of pie in a café, and playing piano beside his elderly father. These scenes are laid over the tentative, moving piano piece.
Without any words at all, the meaning is there. It is a stark contrast to the earlier scene of Joe’s Hall of You, making you wonder if it might feature these memories now instead. It’s impossible not to consider your own life as you watch. How easy it is for us to become consumed by goals: landing the perfect job, getting married, buying our first house. The belief is that if we can just do these things, if we can reach these goals, we will be happy.
But this scene beautifully illustrates what many people take a lifetime to learn: the happiness was always there. It’s in the laughter shared with loved ones, in the wind through our hair, in the smiles exchanged with strangers, in the sunlight dappled through trees, in simply… being alive to witness the world around us.
Joe and 22 eventually find out that the ‘spark’ they were seeking for 22 was never a purpose at all, it just meant being ‘ready to live’. It’s another almost painfully touching message, especially for those of us consumed by trying to find a greater purpose in life. There is a surprising sense of revelation in the notion of releasing this idea. There is no purpose at all, but to live.