Probably the biggest question one could answer is: “What is the meaning of life?”
It’s a riddle that all forms of artwork have attempted to solve. The novel “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” joked that the answer is 42, as if it were like solving a math problem.
But should we be surprised that Pixar, the animation giant behind “Up,” “Inside Out, “Toy Story” and “WALL-E,” is the movie studio that actually comes closest to answering this question?
Disney/Pixar’s “Soul” was released on Disney+ on Christmas Day after being delayed from its summer release due to COVID-19.
In that time during the delay, hundreds of thousands of people have died. Many have lost their jobs or their businesses and have spent the past few months contemplating what their purpose is on this Earth. And the movie came out on a day — Christmas — in which people would usually gather with dozens of relatives to exchange gifts. This year, many didn’t travel to see their families at all.
It seems fitting that “Soul” was not just released on Christmas, but this Christmas, the year of this horrible pandemic. It’s a movie that not only deals with death and the afterlife (similar to “Coco”) but it also deals with what makes us who we are (similar to “Inside out.”)
The end result might be Pixar’s boldest, most experimental and most artistic output. It might be the best movie released in 2020. It certainly was the one we needed and it left me and my wife in tears for reasons I’ll get into in a minute.
First off, this movie tells the story of Joe Gardner, voiced by Jamie Foxx, an aspiring jazz pianist who is stuck (at least in his mind) as a middle school band teacher. He wishes he could be touring and playing in night clubs and doesn’t seem to appreciate the fact that he can help mold the minds of students. He’s singularly focused on what his purpose is in life and he’s convinced it is music.
He’s finally landed his career-changing gig when he quickly falls into a manhole and ends up as a pastel blob floating above an escalator to The Great Beyond. He’s fearful of death, not because he’s worried about Heaven or Hell, but because he isn’t satisfied with the life he left behind. He feels he never truly achieved his life’s goal and he has to go back. He has unfinished business.
The metaphysical animation depicting the escalator to the afterlife is dark and abstract with sharp white lines all shooting out of the sky. It’s the most daring piece of animation that Pixar has created and it’s scored by the Oscar-winning duo of Trent Rezner and Atticus Ross. The former NIN frontman has impressed with film scores in the past, mostly with David Fincher, such as “The Social Network,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “Gone Girl,” and “Mank.” Instead of relying on his past collaborator in Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino, co-director Pete Docter went the industrial route but still has emphasized the importance of a good soundtrack. The jazz music on Earth is composed by Jon Batiste, the band leader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Batiste scores a stunning piano finale.
Joe Gardner finds himself in The Great Before, a land where souls are created before they are sent into newly born bodies. The multi-ethnic, accented leaders-in-charge are two-dimensional Picasso-like drawings that all call themselves Jerry. It’s very trippy and looks like it could have been conceived by Terry Gilliam, Stanley Kubrick or Charlie Kaufman.
Gardner is teamed up with an unborn soul, simply named 22, voiced by Tina Fey, who has yet to find her spark despite the guidance from hundreds of famous mentors including Abraham Lincoln, Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Carl Jung and more. Soul 22 worries that she might not actually be great at any one thing in life.
I don’t want to spoil any more of the plot, but the adventure eventually moves to Earth and the story moves quickly and with conviction. The movie never feels like it’s wandering or spinning its wheels. Pete Docter, the chief creative officer at Pixar, is at the helm and he knows what he’s doing (having previously directed “Monsters Inc,” “Up” and “Inside Out.”)
You can tell the team behind this movie has read a lot of books on philosophy and apparently the story had numerous drafts before they landed on this tale. It was originally a heist film set entirely in the metaphysical realm, but I think Pixar made the right decision to set some scenes on Earth to show that life is worth living.
Joining Docter for co-director and co-writer duties is Kemp Powers, an exciting new voice in cinema. This is actually only the second movie that Powers has worked on, the other being a 2020 Oscar contender with “One Night in Miami,” the drama he wrote based on his own play. That movie is only out in select cities, but it’s very good as well. Powers, a graduate of Howard University, is the first African American director of a Pixar movie and this movie that has Pixar’s first African American lead character. While this is historic, it never feels like forced diversity or pandering. They never hit you over the head with it and the producers brought in experts to make sure the African American experience is told authentically.
Powers is 48 years old but he’s a relative newcomer to Hollywood. He wrote a short film in 2012 and wrote a few episodes of the TV series “Star Trek Discovery,” but his IMDB profile is very slim. He’ll be a household name soon with at least one Oscar under his belt come 2021 (he will likely get nominated in both Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay categories and “Soul” is a lock to win Best Animated Feature and might get strong consideration for Best Picture too).
I think what I love most about “Soul” is the questions it asks and the unconventional viewpoints it takes. Most movies, especially those aimed at children, talk about finding your destiny or your purpose in life. They talk about if you really love something and have a dream that you should never give that dream up and pursue it to the bitter end. “Follow your dreams” is repeated over and over again. But what if you don’t actually achieve the dream you had as a child? Does that mean you had a failed life? What if you finally get to do your dream and it doesn’t make you happy? What if you don’t have any dreams? What if there’s not one big thing that you’re passionate about?
Just like Docter taught children in “Inside Out” that it was OK to feel sad at times, he’s teaching adults in “Soul” that it’s OK to feel lost at times, wondering what your purpose is in life.
In the end, the movie preaches appreciating the simple things in life, like eating a slice of pizza or looking up at the sky.
Pixar did something really risky with “Soul.” They aimed it more at adults than children.
There likely won’t be many action figures or merchandise from this movie. It won’t be the cash cow such as “Cars” or “Toy Story” or “Finding Nemo” or “The Incredibles.” There won’t be kids’ sleeping bags depicting Joe Gardner playing in a jazz club.
This movie isn’t a babysitter for your kids for two hours. They might get bored. Many certainly won’t understand it. It’s not as funny or lighthearted as Pixar’s other offerings.
But if you were moved to tears by the opening scene in “Up.” If you marveled at the artistic silence that was the first half of “WALL-E.” If you appreciated the deeper themes in “Inside Out” and “Coco,” then this movie is for you.
I’ve always been frustrated that Pixar was afraid to embrace the true artistry in their movies. “Up” is a genius movie at first. It makes you cry and tells a real story about loss and regret because embarking on a colorful adventure with balloons in the sky. But for me, the movie loses its appeal when it turns into a story about talking dogs and giant birds. The same for “WALL-E.” I loved the quiet storytelling between WALL-E and Eve, but when Jeff Garlin is running around the spaceship, I lose interest.
I get it. These are kids movies.
But maybe we’re underestimating children.
My daughter is only two. She was already asleep when we put on “Soul,” but I don’t think she’ll understand what is going on. She mostly watches Peppa Pig. But for older children — I’d say seven years old and up — this movie could speak to them.
Fred Rogers said that children’s entertainment shouldn’t be just meant to babysit your kid. It should teach and inspire. Movies can say something in a way that you and I might not be able to. It can teach children lessons.
I once met an addiction counselor who was an alcoholic herself. She was telling me that she grew up in an abusive household and was in and out of the foster care system and never truly felt loved or accepted. When she was a young girl, she watched the Christmas special “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and saw the Island of Misfit Toys. She looked up at the TV screen and said, “Finally, there’s a place for me!” It broke my heart to imagine this young girl who felt so lost. But it spoke to me about the power that a cartoon can have to inspire a child.
“Soul” is a movie that might inspire a lost soul, someone who works 60 hours a week at a job they hate, someone who is so obsessed with their passion that they lose sight of the world around them, someone who doesn’t know what they’re good at. We just have to take the time to look around and enjoy a slice of pizza. Is there really anything more you need in life?
Usually, you need a few tissues handy when you watch a Pixar movie. This time, grab the whole box.
My wife and I hugged each other after watching this movie. We both had a tough year during this pandemic. We looked over at our daughter, slumped over asleep, and we knew that it doesn’t matter what we do for a job or if we make our mark on history.
On Christmas Eve, after I just spent a very long day working at the restaurant I co-own with my parents, I came home to watch a movie with my wife and daughter before bed. As we were struggling to put our daughter to sleep, the most gorgeous snow began to fall on the ground. My daughter stood up and went to the glass sliding door and pressed her hands up and looked outside at our dim backyard with white flakes catching the light as they fell. It was beautiful and it might be one of my favorite memories from this Christmas.
It doesn’t matter what we buy or what we do. It’s moments like snow falling on a beautiful night. That’s what life is about.