Pete Docter was doubtless aware that, with a title this presumptive, Soul was asking to be written off with “It ain’t got none”. But he probably also knew that, excepting something going fascinatingly wrong – The Good Dinosaur – Pixar movies tend to get a free pass, from critics and audiences alike. And Docter, responsible for telling kids it’s good to be scared so that benign invisible monsters can feed off their loosh, or – hey, why not, if it’ll make them feel better about it – their laughter, is guilty of the same plodding literalism of all Pixar pictures. It’s most obvious in the anthropomorphic likes of Toy Story, A Bug’s Life and Cars, whereby our own societal signifiers are reproduced in the most banal and recognisable form.
Most irritatingly, this unimaginative and strategic – some might say obsessively so – lens also extends to explorations intangible and subjective. Realms such as the mental space of Inside Out – a much better movie, but all the same – and the afterlife of Coco. Now Soul goes for a second spin on Coco’s post-corporeal ghost train – are they trying to tell families something about their imminent mortality? – but where that film had bags of energy, zest and a fairly decent twist, Soul has none.
Jerry: This isn’t the Great Beyond, it’s the Great Before.
But then, Docter is your classic botched creative, his hubristic reach extending beyond his grasp. Striving ever further to explore meaning but showing how bereft he is with each more “challenging” gesture (Brad Bird, in contrast, is the Pixar exception, having managed to make his movies for the studio distinctive and relatively exempt from their party line. Must be all that objectivism fuelling his vision). Soul has already been a huge hit for Disney+, but I remain doubtful it would have shown such fizz for paying, cinemagoing audiences.
It’s obvious Docter bottled his “ambitions” long before Soul settles for a half-hearted, autopilot take on All of Me (perhaps not coincidentally written by Field of Dreams’ Phil Alden Robinson, who possessed a deceptively easy touch at delivering palatable Hollywood metaphysics). Which, if one is to be cynical about these things – and hey, this is Disney we’re talking about – allows them to push transgenderism signifiers along with the kind of earnest progressiveness that inevitably trips them up (because Disney has such a historically strong record in such matters).
Worry not, lest you assume I’m being needlessly conspiratorial about Soul’s motives. After all, it only submits to we, the undiscerning audience, that the one thing sure to convince a reluctant soul of the virtue in coming to Earth after all is… pepperoni pizza. Lest we forget, Inside Out saw its young protagonist up in arms about broccoli pizza. Yes, Docter has a thing about pizza, if you’re angling to go down a rabbit hole with this one. Or simply enter Room a113. He has also included the line “We’ll just get you back to your meat suit” which will do nothing to foster a benign view of Pixar’s underlying motives. That, and extolling the virtues of one Mother Teresa.
Moonwind: But Marge, look! I put this man’s soul in a cat!
The return of protagonist Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) to the Earth plane allows Docter to retreat to the safe ground of animal humour. Joe’s soul is trapped in the body of a cat while nascent soul 22 (no coincidence they chose that number) inhabits the body of his jazz musician. Tina Fey portrays 22; Ellen is persona non grata, of course, while Tina only has to apologise ingratiatingly for black face on her TV show. Docter apprises that Fey’s presence is okay, as she can be referred to in marginally derogatory fashion as “a middle-aged white lady”. Mostly, this section is Soul at its most conspicuously digestible, your standard Pixar puffery, and as such, it feels like an obviously focus-grouped retreat from the bigger issues Docter had his eye on.
Joe: Is everyone here named Jerry?
Even before that, though, the signs were that he’d fudged it. Docter comes up with cutely indistinct, amorphous blue-ish blobs as the natural form for his soul entities. It’s a design that wouldn’t look out of place in Inside Out. More than the underwhelming visual cues, Docter has entirely wimped out with his attempt to tackle the Great Beyond. You see, he and his brainstorming team don’t want to offend anyone – they don’t even actually offend atheists, since God doesn’t get a look in, and Hell only gets spelled out – so they come up with something “different’ that avoids the messy business of where you go, or even the touchy prospect of reincarnation (Docter framed his choice as a means to address concepts of determinism, but who is he trying to kid?)
22: I already know everything about Earth, and it’s not worth the trouble.
Because Soul is all about Earth and how you should really want to go there. Indeed, it’s a propaganda movie for Earth life, but without even a tenth of the cynicism of Capra’s life-affirming It’s a Wonderful Life. By setting up a “new” scenario, the animation neatly avoids facing up to any of the fundamental questions it owes itself to tackle. Which, since Pixar is potentially filling the yawning chasm that would once have been a religious education for a large percentage of its young audience, one might regard as not-a-little suspect.
And as noted, being Pixar, they succeed in making whatever realm they create, be it insect or toy or within, just like the outside one. Which entails convincing someone who hasn’t lived about the need to live, but who has nevertheless been merrily hoovering up experiences that very much resemble what we’d call living.
Jerry: This is where personalities come from.
Hollywood isn’t that keen on reincarnation – except as a straight-up comic device – even though many of its denizens who aren’t fully embracing the concomitant hedonism are probably hopped up on a shallow or tepid brand of New-Age think. Docter is as well, in that kind of wishy-washy, empty homily way that produces little books of balm to see you through the day. Soul is full of them, strung together into an ungainly narrative that somehow leads to self-proclamations of depth and resonance.
22: I was existing as a heretical construct in a hypothetical way station between life and death.
And it does so by – typically, and you can’t get more obsessively “me, me” than Docter’s earlier Inside Out– sticking to the personal, the “me, me”. Naturally, this “me, me” seems inherently commendable, since it also involves offering an extended hand to a nearest or dearest. In taking this approach, Soul fails to address or perceive anything of philosophical substance, strenuous and laborious as it is in its inoffensiveness (the choice of pre-incarnation souls) and lacking in any strong authorial position (Docter professes to be a Christian, but nevertheless consulted spiritual scholars in the development process). What you end up with is less an insightful rumination than a vanilla affirmation, on the grounds that anything more might be a bit too thought provoking and besides I’ve got kids.
When Joe dies, Docter and co-director Kemp Powers – the latter cynically brought on board to fend off accusations of Pixar-so-white, but they duly arrived anyway – scrupulously avoid an inkling of what happens next, aside from offering a vision of a looming and slightly alarming, sub-A Matter of Life and Death black escalator leading to an all-consuming fiery white orb (an inverse black hole?)
Whatever their tack here, the result is a less than consummately appealing vision. Or at best, one pocked with prevailing markers of apprehension. Notably too, this pre-heavenly juncture is set among the void of the stars, and unless that’s a subversive means to suggest space isn’t the literal space we think it is, I’d say it’s another formidably unimaginative choice on Docter’s part, with its characters typically staring down onto a big blue-green globe sponsored by NASA. Indeed, contrast this toneless death space with the warm, welcoming vision of NYC (I know, right?) and it’s clear how Docter is intent on framing Soul.
Jerry: A spark isn’t a soul’s purpose.
Bypassing the “What happens when you die?”, “What’s it all for?”, Docter instead opts for what he knows – namely, why it’s nice to be here (if you’re a very rich denizen of Hollywood). Accordingly, the question of why one is here is already loaded when we start with a main protagonist who volubly wants to be here. And because Docter and his development committee are so squeamishly inclusive, they know they can’t play the card that everyone has a real calling. This is actually played out rather well in a scene at the barbershop; there are some decent scenes in Soul, I hasten to stress. I mean, Pixar is nothing if not palatable, like one of those prized pepperoni pizzas.
As a consequence of shirking a tangible mission or talent, they have to settle on everyone’s “spark” comprising nothing more than a calling to plain old live. Which means the darkest they can delve into veering off the straight and narrow is losing that sense of calling. Soul really is that facile. On the plus side, this means that, when any sense of “spark” has been inoculated out of you, you won’t revisit Soul and wonder why your life is an unfulfilling, empty void.
Joe: The last box fills in when you’re ready to come and live.
There are nods to the astral plane and mystical encounters with the undead, but with the kind of integrity you might expect from a mid-90s Robin Williams vehicle. True, the “I thought I’d feel different” is a sound means of imparting that getting everything you want in life – chance would be a fine thing – can’t furnish inner or spiritual nourishment. But the problem with this is that Docter has no means to convey where that inner or spiritual journey should take you, or of what it comprises.
So he settles on the populist, smoothly sating “I died for ten minutes and came back” jingle redolent of book shops’ “Religious and Spiritual” sections. Of having a renewed belief in the value of being here and appreciating every minute. This realisation is also presented as a cue not to mind dying – or rather, passing onward – when it should really entail a recognition that, in Joe’s case, it is not the achievement or the applause but the creative act of playing that provides fulfilment (apparently the cue for this scene was Docter winning his second Oscar and asking “Is this it? Do I just do this again?”) But as we’ve seen, you can’t emphasise the creative purpose line, as that might leave some feeling excluded.
Jerry: You can’t crush a soul here. That’s what life on Earth is for.
And it’s no good retorting with “Well, duh this is for kids”. There’s no onus for cossetting or patronising the audience. It isn’t for nothing that Watership Down is a recognised masterpiece (in both mediums, but not the recent TV version, obviously). And not for nothing that its suitability for children was debated at first. Besides, Pixar has long-since been making its movies primarily for middle-aged parents, because its movies are made by middle-aged parents. That’s why, once you take a step back, they can stand out as weirdly very much not for kids, but still pull the necessary strings to bring them in. Besides, Soul is a movie dropping references to Orwell and features a baby soul tells a grown man “I washed your butt for you”.
22: I guess you really are a jazz player.
Hilariously, some have turned this typically earnest Pixar exercise in inoffensiveness into an unwitting latest foray into insensitivity. Which is probably no less than Soul deserves for tripping over itself, headlong into a nearly (but may as well have been) white-saviour trope. Indeed, the Gizmodo review has it about right, that the movie “comes across less like an earnest casual celebration of everyday Blackness, and more like a twee depiction of it that’s meant for white audiences’ consumption”. That’s exactly what Soul is. But that aspect also serves to mask criticisms of how empty its essential underlying theme is. Which means Docter can probably bumble around saying to himself “Well, at least I got the philosophy right”.
Moonwind: We mystics meet in this glorious landscape every Thursday.
As I mentioned, there are a few things I liked in Soul. Falling down a manhole after casually avoiding a series of much more credibly deadly threats at the outset. The design of the Jerrys is at least trying something different, even if it’s a take on Ronald Searle with all the edges worn down. The trap doors in mid-air are a neat nod to Time Bandits. “Well, the government calls it 6.30” is a line I can get down with. The depictions of jazz playing bliss are admirably intentioned, even if the “off in your own zone” visualisations get stale quickly. I liked the cat. But then, Pixar always do the animals well, making it a shame they concentrate so much on attempting to show they know “people”. What happens to the cat’s soul when Joe inhabits its body? Docter again ducks out of suggesting anything unpopular, like animals not having any.*
Jung: Stop talking! My unconscious mind hates you!
I’ll readily admit that, since somewhere around Up (another Docter effort), I’ve found Pixar has been offering diminishing returns. And yet, I ended up thinking several of their recent pictures that sounded on paper as if they’d be a bit of a botch – Inside Out, Coco – were much better than I expected. Soul is not one of those, brought to you as it is by the most facile face of a studio that thinks they have an artistic access-all-areas on the deep and meaningful. If you can withstand the platitudinous Pixar proselyting, you might come out of Soul happy, but you might just find it an unrewarding and unenlightening slog. At the end of the credits, we are informed “Created and produced at Pixar Animated Studios… and in homes at least six feet away from each other throughout the Bay area”. I’m only surprised they didn’t retrospectively institute social distancing on the stairway to heaven, the obedient little doggies.
*Addendum 14/08/22: Which isn’t to suggest they don’t have “group” ones.