The Metaphysical Soul And The Ideal Way To Live: A Review of Pixar’s Soul
Pixar's Soul was a smash hit. Personally, when I first saw the trailer, I couldn't tell how it would do in theatres. The movie seemed kind of shallow based on the trailer, but I decided that I would watch it no matter what because it was about a jazz musician (and I love jazz). Soul is Pixar's first movie in which they have a black main character. The main character is Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a middle school band-director who dreams of getting his shot in the jazz world. When he finally gets his shot in the form of a gig with Dorothea Williams (a fictional hot-shot jazz saxophonist), he is ecstatic and runs around New York City overwhelmed with happiness. And then he dies. He falls into a manhole! What a way to go... He ends up on some sort of escalator that is bringing him up to the ominous Great Beyond. The Great Beyond looks almost like a big bug zapper in the movie. He doesn't want to go there -- it's not his time to go! So, he tears his way out of the Great Beyond escalator and falls into a dark void that spits him out into the Great Before.
This is where it gets really interesting. Pixar gives their take on how infants retain their personalities and their "spark" through the Great Before -- a place where the spirits of unborn babies run around unbound by things such as taste, smell, and touch. They are guided towards getting their "earth pass" (the thing that allows them to jump through the earth portal and be born) by the Jerrys. The Jerrys follow the famous René Descartes' principle of causal adequacy because they claim that they are interdimensional beings (greater than humans) and thus they can not be fathomed by humans (as we are lesser beings). Using terms of causal adequacy, we can not understand the Jerrys because they carry more intrinsic reality (and can perceive more formal reality) than we carry. However, what are the origins of the soul in the minds of Pixar? Pixar does not venture into this, so I can only assume that either the Jerrys are all gods (thus enforcing a polytheistic system which contrasts the monotheistic principle common to traditional philosophers), and thus the Jerrys are the origins of the souls as well as their guides, or that Pixar just didn't feel like specifying the origin of the soul because it would have made the movie way too long. I believe it is the latter. There is also another interdimensional being like the Jerrys, Terry, who has a much different personality from the Jerrys. Where do the personalities of the Jerrys and Terry come from?
One explanation that I can offer is that they carry all of these personalities within themselves and thus can pick and choose which one they wish to use, however this would involve an inherent bias (as they are picking one personality over another). Where would this bias come from? Falling back to Descartes’ causal adequacy, maybe we can't understand because we are humans and we just have to accept that they have personalities that come from within themselves or from some other higher being (assuming Pixar did not intend for them to be the ultimate gods).
Moving forward with the plot, the little spirits of unborn babies are also mentored by famous figures in order to help them find something that gives them their "spark". Joe Gardner is mistaken for a famous psychologist by the Jerrys and assigned to an especially rebellious spirit named 22 (voiced by Tina Fey). 22 hates Earth. She has had tons of mentors and she makes it clear that she does not want to go to Earth. Eventually, Joe Gardner explains to her that he is not actually a psychologist and that he is Joe Gardner. From there they embark on a heartfelt journey of soul-based self-discovery that is the rest of the movie. I won't bore you with the rest of the plot because, supposedly, you already watched the movie. In case you didn’t watch the movie and you came here for spoilers, 22 ends up realizing that she likes Earth, but Joe Gardner says she doesn't and that she just found his purpose and mistook it for her own because she was in his body. However, after Joe Gardner does awesome at his life-changing gig with Dorothea Williams, he realizes that he still feels the same. He realizes that the "spark" that 22 and all the other unborn baby spirits are looking for is not a purpose. One is on earth not to serve a purpose, but just to live -- just to enjoy life. After Joe gives his earth pass to 22 and returns to Earth (courtesy of the Jerrys), he says to the Jerrys that he doesn't know what he will do moving forward, but that he will "live every minute of it". Now this is where a lot of people began to cry.
Soul was a great movie and it was hard to find things I didn't like. But, I did find some things to dislike. In the movie, the audience got a glimpse of people in-the-zone and how close they were to the people who were "lost souls" (people who have entered a deep state of depression and unhealthy obsession). I didn't like how, rather than leaving the audience to interpret the unsettlingly close juxtaposition of the in-the-zone and lost souls, Pixar chose to have Moonwind, a hippy spiritual, interpret it for us by saying that people in-the-zone were in danger of becoming lost souls if they developed an unhealthy obsession with their beloved activity. This was a very deep takeaway as we see this happen often in the real world. For example, many famous jazz musicians died very young because they got lost in their pursuit of jazz and began to neglect other aspects of their own lives, including their health (one example of such a musician is Charlie Parker who is shown above). I think the scene would have been more deep if Pixar let us interpret everything for ourselves. Another problem many people have with Soul is that Joe Gardner (a black man voiced by Jamie Foxx, another black man) requires a middle-aged white woman (Tina Fey as 22) to possess his body in order for him to be set on the right path. Many thought this was extremely insensitive as it presented very troubling racial imagery that reinforced the idea of the white savior. I personally do not believe this was Pixar's intention, but it definitely would’ve suited Pixar to be a little more sensitive to what people might think of the possession scene.
Despite the aforementioned tea, Soul was a great movie for all ages. Pixar did an excellent job of adding humour (such as jabs at the New York Knicks and Joe Gardner becoming a cat), while also incorporating more mature themes that may go over the heads of younger viewers. The major takeaway I had from Soul is that we should live life enjoying the present rather than losing ourselves in the pursuit of a glorified purpose. I am not surprised that Soul was such a hit and I look forward to seeing what well-deserved awards it wins.
Siddharth "Sid" Chalasani is a 16-year old currently attending Newark Academy in Livingston, New Jersey. Sid is passionate about philosophy and cultural studies, and much of his current work is studying conspiratorial thinking and the QAnon movement. Most of Sid's current work is on his blog, "The Tea on Philosophy", and, when Sid is not writing, he can be found pursuing his passion for music (specifically the trumpet), running track, and playing basketball.