Spoiler Warning: This article contains major spoilers for Soul
Soul, much like director Pete Docter’s film Inside Out, is an example of Disney tailoring its films to a modern audience by incorporating realistic, even depressing storylines into their movies. Though, as Docter said, the film is “colorful and fun to look at,” implying a light subject matter; the title alone conveys its weight as a double metaphor for soul music and the human soul, while the plot is just as heavy.
The story itself follows Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Fox). Joe is a middle-aged man unhappy with his life as a part-time middle school jazz band teacher. However, he gets the opportunity of his dreams to play with a famous jazz musician, only to fall into a manhole a few hours before the gig. Joe, seemingly dead, has his soul sent to a limbo where a conveyor belt slowly guides him towards the “Great Beyond.” Unhappy with his life’s ending, Joe, desperate to play with the famous jazz musician, escapes into a realm called the “Great Before” that trains “new souls.” Here, he poses as a mentor for a troublesome “new soul” called “22.”
22, although technically genderless, takes on the voice of a woman (Tina Fey) and is referred to as “she” only four times, all toward the end of the film. (22, throughout the rest of this article, will be referred to with the pronouns “she/her/hers” for clarity’s sake.) The movie may offer a subtle commentary on gender through 22’s character, but this is disputable. Given that 22, who has no knowledge of Earth’s social constructs, later inhabits Joe’s body without anyone realizing, Soul’s possibly accidental message about gender seems to be that gender is a social construct — though, again, there is little information to go on. The audience certainly sees complex men and women portrayed in the film, both in traditionally male and female ways, such as the mother being a practical seamstress, Dorothea the jazz singer leading a male-dominated music scene, the friendly and sensitive tattooed barber, and more. These reflections of gender are not explicitly discussed throughout the movie in dialogue; likely, Soul did not intend to send a message about gender. After all, 22 says she chose her white, female voice because “it annoys people.”
As a (fake) mentor, Joe is supposed to help 22 find her “spark,” which would allow her to go to earth and start life as a human. Since 22 wants to remain in limbo and not become human, she promises to help Joe take her place on Earth and resume his life as a human. However, the duo’s cheating lands them in trouble when they arrive on Earth with 22 in Joe’s body, who is in a hospital without major injuries, and Joe in the body of a therapy cat on ‘his’ lap in the hospital.
One of the few flaws of this movie is that this therapy cat causes a plot hole. The cat’s soul is sent to limbo’s conveyor belt, presumably to die, yet the cat switches back into its body at the end of the film, leaving questions such as: How long does it take to go from limbo to the afterlife? Why did Joe struggle so much to escape the conveyor belt when it wasn’t even moving quickly? Did the cat struggle against death like Joe to buy itself time to return to earth? Do cats in this universe have souls and an afterlife? Do cats fear death? The movie doesn’t answer these questions, but may be playing on the idea that ‘cats have nine lives.’ As this cat’s part in the movie doesn’t mess much with the central plot but more a world-building element, I’ll cease my mock complaints.
The rest of the story follows Joe’s attempts to help 22 pose as himself and, in addition, help 22 learn about life on Earth, specifically in New York City, before 6:30 p.m., when their souls can be returned to their normal bodies. While the sassy 22 is unhappy at first, even scared by the busy city, she quickly becomes curious about everyday things like pizza, lollipops, and sewing thread as the two start to appreciate the mundane aspects of life.
I find Soul realistic in its message and weight, similar to director Docter’s other film, Inside Out, marking a changing point in modern Disney movies. Though the movie certainly is not a sequel to Inside Out, as the director Docter hopes viewers know, both share a similar design style and, most notably, an ability to transport characters from their lowest points to resolutions in a real, empathetic way. As Docter explains in prior interviews, Soul attempts to tackle big questions like “the meaning of life” but in a more more realistic, or “messy” way: “we had to allow for a certain amount of messiness because that’s what we see reflected in the life around us,” he said. Older Disney films from Mulan to Ratatouille encourage a different lesson than Soul. Mulan, for instance, follows a young girl defying her parents’ wishes and social expectations of honor by disguising herself as a man and taking her fathers’ place in the war. Ratatouille, likewise, has a rat disobey his fathers‘ and fellow rats‘ lifestyle of stealing food and instead decides to professionally cook food. Older Disney movies’ common plotlines that reward the pursuit of a protagonists’ self-focused passions sends a message to viewers that differs greatly from Soul’s modern spin.
In Soul, the protagonist Joe’s initial conflict is about whether he will pursue an unstable career in jazz or a stable full-time position teaching jazz to (mostly ungrateful) middle schoolers. Joe’s mother, a strict, practical seamstress points out to Joe, “You can’t eat dreams for breakfast” while encouraging him to take the stable job. The movie ends without Joe making a clear choice, suggesting that “following your dream” is no longer a necessity for a happy life. In this way, Disney certainly seems to be adapting its traditional message of “follow your dreams if you want to feel fulfilled” for a modern audience, who don’t always have that choice, which is fitting for 2020 viewers.
Soul further examines the possible harm of dreams in a very modern way, as 22 confronts her self-deprecating anxiety about not being ‘good enough’ to find her “spark” and become human. 22 becomes a “lost soul” during this low point alongside Joe’s return to his body and Earth, enabled by a dimension-hopping hippie character, where Joe gives a successful performance at his jazz gig. However, after the gig, supposedly the best night of his life, Joe still feels incomplete as he realizes his borderline selfish obsession with jazz is not enough to fulfill his life. In a memorable quote, the famous musician Joe worked with tells him “I heard this story about a fish. He swims up to this older fish and says, ‘I’m trying to find this thing they call 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.’”
Inspired, Joe then returns to the Great Before to the news that 22 has become a “lost soul.” There, he is further enlightened by Jerry, an afterlife manager, that “sparks” aren’t purposes for life: “We don’t assign purposes. Where did you get that idea?” This central message of the movie inspires Joe to combat 22’s self-deprecating thoughts by telling her that her appreciation for the little things while on Earth was 22’s unique “spark” she needed to become human. Together, he actually fulfills the role he first disguised himself as, a mentor, and he guides 22 to earth to start her life. The managers of the Great Before, all named Jerry, offer Joe a second chance at life for his heroic actions, and Joe returns to his body for a second time since his jazz gig, this time abiding by the rules of the afterlife managers. In the last line of the movie, Joe acknowledges that he still hasn’t found his purpose in life, though he knows playing jazz music is his “spark” and framework he sees the world through, similar to 22’s appreciation of the mundane. In the last line of the movie, Joe says “I’m not sure [how I’ll spend my life], but I do know I’m going to live every minute of it.”
Some critics have taken issue with the film’s ending, however. As Kirsten Acuña pointed out in an Insider article, it was problematic for Joe Gardner to sacrifice his life for a presumably white female, due to Tina Fey’s voice acting. Furthermore, a few of the film’s plot points may be racially insensitive. For example, the Black lead dies in the first ten minutes of the movie to be replaced by a “soul,” or raceless blob creature, and later has his body inhabited by a seemingly white female, which could arguably be a depiction of blackface. There is another scene when a black man is mistaken for Joe by an afterlife worker trying to punish Joe, and is then traumatized by him — an example of the common microaggression of being mistaken for other members of one’s race. These racially problematic aspects of the movie should be considered alongside the praise it earns for having the first animated Black lead, as such choices should be analyzed for the messages they send, not used as a marketing technique to earn praise.
As far as the movie’s intended message, Soul’s ending likely resonates with its 2020 audience, whose lives were put ‘on pause’ during the pandemic. We, like Joe, may not know where we go from here, as the production of a COVID-19 vaccine makes an escape from the pandemic seem just around the corner, but we can take comfort in knowing our sacrifices have not been for nothing. We will either pursue our own ‘sparks’ or not, but, regardless, can gain happiness from helping others while finding our own purposes in life.
Feature image: Courtesy of Disney