I only knew two things about "Soul" before watching: it was produced by Pixar and it was criticized soon after it was announced.
Back in July, I saw Tweets and Tumblr posts from Disney fans upset that the film is part of the recent trend of turning black leads in animated films into an animal or, in this case, a blue blob. I am not the right person to say if the representation in "Soul" and Disney/Pixar films in general is adequate or problematic, but it absolutely is worth mentioning before going any further.
Despite not knowing anything else about "Soul," I was excited when I saw it would be available on Disney+ on Christmas Day. As a massive Disney and Pixar fan, I had to watch it even if I wasn't sure if I'd like it. There have been a few recent (and not so recent) Pixar movies I didn't like, but I recently watched "Onward" and liked it, so I had hope for "Soul." Plus, I've been struggling lately and though it would cheer me up. Boy, was I wrong.
"Soul" starts by introducing us to Joe Gardner, a middle-aged black jazz musician working as a middle school band director. For years, Joe struggled to get gigs and never got his big break. The kids he teaches are horrible (as all middle school band kids are) and his mom keeps telling him to stick with his real job as a band teacher and give up on his dreams. Still, Joe remains positive and never gives up. His optimism and perseverance pay off and he gets the gig of a lifetime! Finally, things are going Joe's way and he's so happy. Joe dances through the streets, just barely avoiding danger like an old-timey cartoon character, until he falls into a manhole. BOOM! Joe's dead.
Just as his life is taking a turn, Joe dies before achieving his dream. The title of the film and the promo photos made it pretty clear that Joe would turn into a "soul," but for some reason, his death really caught me off guard. After his untimely and jarring death, Joe's soul falls onto a conveyor belt in a black void leading to a bright white light.
Ominous music plays as Joe is taken closer and closer to the light. He tries to run backwards on the belt and comes across other souls of various ages speaking different languages. The people on the belt were staggered, suggesting that they are in line based on the time they died. Everyone is accepting their fate, but Joe has to get out of there. Of course, Joe manages to escape his fate and the movie can start with its out-of-the-box plot. Joe leaves the scene, but I'm still stuck on that conveyor belt.
I found this scene so incredibly haunting and disturbing. We never find out what that bright light called "the Great Beyond" actually leads to, but the void surrounding the conveyor belt and the white light along with the overall vibe of the scene caused me to believe it was the end for the souls. I'm afraid that death will be nothingness, so this probably has something to do with the conclusion I came to. It could've been the writers' intent for the Great Beyond to be whatever the viewer wants it to be. I couldn't find any information about what the afterlife in "Soul" was meant to be with a quick Google search, so we're just going to assume it's meant to be up to interpretation. I don't know about you, but when I watch a bright Disney movie I don't want to be reminded of my own mortality.
The film leaves the afterlife ambiguous, but we get a clear look at the before-life. Joe finds himself in the Great Before after escaping his fate. The Great Before is filled with rolling hills and tall grass and has some funky white structures. Its inhabitants are new souls and their guardians. The imagery is light, airy and calming, but I am still unsettled.
In the Great Before, all new souls are given the personality traits they'll have in life. After they are assigned traits, the souls must attend a seminar and be mentored by the soul of a dead person. This mentor helps the soul find their spark, which will complete its Earth Pass and allow the soul to be born. The only way to get to Earth is to have one of these passes, and Joe needs one so he can return to his life and make it to his gig. Conveniently, there's a soul named 22 that's been in the Great Before for thousands of years and refuses to be born and forced to live. Joe is paired up with 22 and they form a plan to finally find 22's spark and give Joe her pass. Joe shows 22 snapshots of his life to help inspire her.
Both 22 and Joe see that Joe's life was boring and, frankly, a bit pathetic. Where greatest hits and big moments would be for those selected to be mentors, all we see is mundane and insignificant moments for Joe. There are snapshots of Joe eating alone in a diner, sitting on the subway, and conducting a middle school band. The summary of Joe's life is so sad, but it just motivates him to get to his gig and finally make something of himself.
Without knowing whether or not Joe will make it back to his life, I'm left thinking, "What if this is it for Joe? What of this is all his life amounts to? How many other real people have lives like this, and what if I end up like this?" The prospect of having a life without meaning is worrying, especially at this stage in my life where I'm not really doing anything. I also relate to 22 more than I would like to admit. I don't believe in the concept of souls, but what if my "soul" wasn't not ready for this world? It feels like that sometimes.
After 22 and Joe leave the seminar, the rest of the movie chronicles the duo on their mission to save Joe's life and 22's non-life. The bulk of the movie is Pixar fun mixed with a heavy plot, but none of it made me feel the way the first 30 minutes did, so I'm not going to talk about it here. The beginning of "Soul" made me think a lot about life and death and it was terrifying. Even though "Soul" is a cartoon with blob characters, the concepts behind it are too real. "Coco" is another Pixar film centered around death, but the plot and scenery is removed far enough from reality that I can enjoy it without thinking about my own mortality. I've rewatched "Coco" many times, but I think once was enough for "Soul." It was objectively a good movie, but I would rather not think about how successful my life may or may not be and what comes after death when I'm watching a Disney movie.