It was bound to happen eventually. After draining our tear ducts and demolishing our emotional reserves over the past two and a half decades with films that have steadily crept ever-deeper into the dark corners of the ontological abyss, Pixar has finally tackled the Big kahuna of existential queries, the patient zero of philosophical propositions, the Mac Daddy of all metaphysical musings– where do we go when we die? And what can we do to ensure that we make the most of the precious time we are granted on this mortal coil before our life reaches its final fateful conclusion?
Where the studio goes from here, who knows? After all there are few cosmic questions grander in scope or ambition than “what comes after life?” apart from, perhaps, “did life ever even exist in the first place?” (Now there’s a concept! The story of a flawed but funky subatomic particle named “Lectra” who inadvertently gets transported to a non-dimensional void whilst travelling across orbits to the nucleus of her home atom, and must pair up with a lonesome, quirky imaginary number named “Onesy” in a quest to re-discover her material substance. Tentative title: Matter.)
(Yes, I know that “Tea Story” didn’t pan out quite the way we hoped, but I’m thinking we have a real winner here!)
However, until “Matter” hits theatres, we have “Soul,” a film which has adequately earned its place among Pixar’s most memorable, heart-wrenching offerings, but doesn’t quite reach the same level of raw, hide-your-fully-grown-tear-soaked-face-behind-your-extra-large-popcorn-so-the-kids-don’t-see-Daddy-crying emotion as its predecessors.
The story follows aspiring New York City jazz pianist, Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), who, after getting the gig of his dreams, experiences a near-fatal run-in with an open manhole– bringing him face to face with that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns. No traveller, that is, except for Joe, evidently, who, when faced with the Great Beyond, immediately turns tail and hatches an elaborate plan with up-in-coming proto-soul, 22 (Tina Fey), to reconnect with his earthly body. An elaborate plan which, through the traditionally strange but whimsical rules of the Pixar-verse, leads to Joe’s body being inhabited by 22, while Joe himself inhabits the body of a nearby cat.
It’s a fun and whacky setup, but one that sets the rest of the film’s course, and the themes it seeks to highlight, on two divergent courses. On the one hand, the story is about the conflict between Joe’s seeking purpose in life through the pursuit of his passion, and 22’s discovering the appeal of living through her raw bewilderment toward the simple wonders of the world (a helicopter seed spinning down from a tree, a hot tasty slice of pepperoni pizza, a man in a subway station strumming soulfully on a guitar).
On the other hand, however, the movie is about Joe re-discovering the simple but powerful joys that come through deep, intentional long-term relationships. Throughout his journey with 22, we see him reconnecting with his barber, his mother, and a student at his school whom he’s taken on as a mentee. However, whereas it’s the nuanced exploration of precisely these kinds of relationships and their deep, lasting value where Pixar usually excels (as illustrated through films like “Up” and “Finding Nemo,” most notably) in “Soul” they are brushed over in favor of the simpler, shallower, sappier plea to “live in the moment.”
But living in the moment is only valuable insofar as it makes us more aware of the inherent, deep-seated power of our personal relationships and the way they form who we are. And while the relationships that define Joe’s life and that define his soul are explored here, their portrayal is sparse and lacking in any real dimension, and is presented as just another one of the light, simple, pleasures of life that 22 is so enamored by. Hardly any time is devoted to developing them as individuals, or the complexities of their relationships with Joe. We are given two short scenes between Joe and his mother, one between Joe and his mentee, one between Joe and his barber, and only a couple of short cutaway shots that show Joe with his father– who we are led to believe played a pivotal role in sparking Joe’s passion for jazz music. We see these people who have impacted Joe’s life, but we hardly spend any time with them. We don’t get to know them. We don’t get to see them change. And we don’t get to see them change Joe. Throughout the second act, they are presented as mere accessories to the more central, though less complicated or dramatic, conflict between Joe and 22. They don’t play an active role in the actual journey that Joe takes throughout the film or guide him in any meaningful way to his ultimate realization of his own innate worth and purpose and value. This causes the film to come off as a mere meditation on the “simple joys of life”– a passable moral for a typical kids movie, but one that is lacking in the kind of raw, human conflict that its existential subject matter demands, and which its studio has made a name off its mastery of.