‘Soul’ also made me very uncomfortable

The dreamy landscape of the Great Before. Images courtesy Walt Disney Pixar Animation Studios.

7/10 Soul is a charming and often hilarious movie about the desperate drive to live, both in the physical and spiritual senses. It’s a great watch, none of its flaws are damning, and I would recommend it for just about everyone.

But my dreams are dark, and much like Onward from the same studio earlier this year, they are all I can see in this film.

New York City- Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), an aspiring jazz pianist who’s gotten a little too old to aspire, is finally offered a full-time middle school teaching position and the security that comes with it. The same day, he gets the break he’s been waiting for his whole life when a former student hooks him up with Dorothea Williams (Angela Basset), who headlines a major local quartet. Over the moon after his successful audition, Gardner falls down an open manhole and dies. He refuses to go into the afterlife and tries to will himself back to his body.

In his scramble, Gardner falls into another plane, this one for souls who haven’t been born yet. He is assigned as a mentor to soul no. 22 (Tina Fey), who has been in her pre-birth state for eons because she can not find a “spark,” a seed of inspiration that all souls must have before they can be born.

There’s immediately a passive “those who can do, those who can’t teach” presumption that’s uncomfortable to watch play out. Gardner accepts his assignment explicitly because the alternative is going straight into the real afterlife, which he is afraid and unready to do. This is a reflection of his choice between teaching and going into the real life of the gig economy, which he is eager to do. On the surface, it’s a reversal – he teaches in life to make ends meet while pursuing his dream and he teaches in death to delay the inevitable, but in both cases he does it ashamedly and as an alternative to what’s really on his mind. This isn’t to say that the movie’s bad because the main character doesn’t want to be a teacher, plenty of people don’t, but I can’t help but feel bad for any teacher watching this and seeing disdainful stereotypes about their profession play out in both life and death.

Pixar has had a difficult relationship with originality recently. After building a refusal to make sequels into the its identity in the ‘00s, the studio suddenly produced seven in 10 years from Toy Story 3 to Toy Story 4. There’s been an intent to correct course recently, and the explicit intent of Soul was to take audiences somewhere we hadn’t been before, but it can’t help but feel like a retread of Inside Out. They’ve even got Fey in second billing in Soul, succeeding her longtime friend and colleague Amy Poehler, who lead Inside Out.

The afterlife itself seems heavily inspired – or maybe enabled, more than inspired – by Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, with rapidly shifting animation styles producing a much zanier setting than we’re used to from Pixar. There’s also a lot of art games like “Flower” in its DNA. The Great Before is filled with constructs named Jerry (several actors, but mainly Richard Ayoade) who are basically Prismo from “Adventure Time” – in fact I was surprised to learn it wasn’t the same actor. There’s a big early lighting que ripped straight out of La La Land, which also followed a jazz pianist. At about the halfway point, Gardner’s soul gets back to Earth, but he’s stuck in the body of a cat like in that one Kevin Spacey movie, but at the same time he’s a talking animated cat running through a jazzy New York City like in that one Billy Joel movie.

Seriously, it’s Prismo. Most of the content they lift is sufficiently remixed, but I’m a little mad about this.

There’s a bit too much lore. They try to fit in as many variations on the “soul” premise as possible, with both an afterlife and pre-life for souls without bodies like Gardner and 22, but there’s also a plane for the souls of living people, be they currently lost in their art, disconnected from their artistic sides or just meditators, who seem to be able to move in and out of the spirit plane at will.

It really brings out my inner communist to see a movie primarily about the spark of artistry and purpose in all souls – the film puts it very literally in those terms – and the peace people can achieve by leaning into this spark and the damage they suffer when they are disconnected from it, and also seeing that movie skirt so uncomfortably around the economic system that forces people to step away from their sparks. The Marxist reading on this is all there in the text – the example they show of a living soul trapped in purgatory is a hedge fund manager, of all the on-the-nose things.

It’s touched on by Dez (Donnell Rawlings), Gardner’s barber who wanted to be a veterinarian but had to go to a cheaper trade school after his daughter got sick, but this is an act of nature, not as a fleshed-out system of oppression that goes back centuries. In Soul, it’s misfortune that befalls Dez and luck that’s stood between Gardner and his passions, not a socioeconomic system that humans made and that certain humans are currently fighting tooth and nail to maintain even as the world collapses around us all.

In this movie that is Pixar’s first with a black lead character – and they are making a big deal about that – that goes out of its way to be inclusive with several languages spoken by souls heading to the afterlife, I can only think of that Stephen Jay Gould quote-

“I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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