THE GREAT BEYOND

What Pixar’s Golden Globe-winning ‘Soul’ teaches us about life

By Emma Dollery 23 March 2021
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©2020 Disney/Pixar. All rights reserved.

Disney and Pixar’s ‘Soul’, the animated movie about a man’s struggle to stay alive, is a heartwarming reminder to celebrate the small things in life.

There are a million ways to die in the West. And a million ways to die in the East/North/South, too. There must be more than a million ways to die in the ever-bustling New York City, and Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx,) the protagonist of Pixar and Disney’s newest film, Soul, narrowly escapes about five of them in one of the earliest scenes. That is, until he falls down a random manhole left gaping open in the middle of the street.

 Joe’s accident feels like an especially hard blow. Moments before he plummets to his almost-death, he lands his dream-gig at a jazz bar in New York City with the renowned saxophonist Dorothea Williams. For Joe – a jazz aficionado who feels he is wasting his life’s purpose working as a middle-school band teacher – this is the lucky break he has been waiting for. A moment, it seems, he will never be able to live out. 

Joe’s soul, a luminous green blob with vaguely Joe-like characteristics, is separated from his body and enters a limbo space, landing on a highway of sorts that is heading straight for the Great Beyond, or the afterworld. 

In Disney and Pixar’s “Soul,” a middle-school band teacher finds himself in The Great Before—a fantastical place where new souls get their personalities, quirks and interests before they go to Earth. There he meets the ubiquitous Counselors who run the You Seminar and the precocious soul, 22, who has never understood the appeal of the human experience. ©2020 Disney/Pixar. All rights reserved.

Not ready to die, Joe (in “soul” form) backtracks, running against a crowd of other souls heading for the Great Beyond, and off of the highway, ending up, accidentally, in the Great Before, where unborn souls are given personalities and the chance to “find their spark” before they are dispatched to Earth. 

The age-old questions of life and death, the afterlife and – in this case – the Great Before have been explored in countless ways throughout history. Dating back to Plato and Aristotle, humans have philosophised endlessly about what exactly it means to die and, more importantly, what it means to live. Still, it feels like a rarity to have such existential topics explored in an all-ages animation that is rendered in almost painful perfection.

In Soul, the randomness and inevitability of death is an inescapable theme from the get-go. Audiences are introduced to Joe on what could have been the best day of his life, but which becomes what might be his last day on Earth. It seems awfully unfair, but we are reminded that life is like that: everyone dies, and it could happen to each of us at any point and in a number of different ways. 

That being said, it’s normal, even beneficial, to harbour a mild fear of dying. It keeps us in the mindset of self-preservation: we look left and right when we cross the road, eat healthy, exercise and lock our doors at night. 

But how on Earth are we supposed to maintain a “normal” relationship with death, a “normal” level of fearing it, when death has become a part of our everyday life in a way it hasn’t before? 

With the Covid-19 pandemic seeming to drag on forever, we are bombarded with incredible figures of death every single day. The invisible death threat that is the disease could lurk around any corner – it may dwell unseen in the guy you stood behind in line to grab your morning coffee, or the woman pushing the pram at the grocery store. Worst of all, you could catch it from one of your most beloved, whose physical company and touch you may not want to live without. 

Thanatophobia is the medical term for an abnormal fear of death, or “death anxiety”. Common symptoms include rapid or irregular heartbeat, sweating and difficulty breathing. (It’s an unfortunate truth that anxiety induced by the fear of getting or dying from Covid-19 has symptoms that overlap with those of the disease itself. This writer has suffered countless moments of breathless panic during which she was sure she had contracted the dreaded virus.)

Even pre-Covid, thanatophobia, the fear of something that is such an integral part of life, must have been crippling: how can you go on living when the thing you fear most could happen at any given moment? 

In Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise, the mania and destruction that this fear can cause is narrated by his protagonist, Jack Gladney, a middle-aged professor and family man living in a small, safe neighbourhood somewhere in the remote American Midwest. When a freak industrial accident causes an “airborne toxic event” that threatens the lives of the town’s residents, Gladney is suddenly confronted with his own mortality. The uncontrollable and life-threatening event leaves an invisible toxic trail (not unlike Covid-19,) that sends him into a spiral. Gladney’s potential demise creeps into every crevice of his life. 

Most interestingly, Gladney embarks on a mission to find a cure for the fear of death. I repeat. Gladney goes on a novel-long search for a cure for the fear of death. It’s not death itself he is trying to avoid, but thanatophobia. He no longer wants to live a half-life, crippled by fear. 

Perhaps Gladney is onto something. We cannot escape death. As Benjamin Franklin famously said, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”. It is completely pointless, not to mention exhausting, to wring our hands about dying. It’s equally exhausting to continually question the point of life when the only thing to do is keep living. 

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to find Gladney’s proverbial blue pill and sink into the blissful thoughtlessness of just living? To never worry again about dying (I mean worry in the manic way our upside-down world has the tendency to induce, not the “healthy” worry that keeps us from jumping off buildings and drinking mysterious substances). 

Perhaps the cure for death anxiety cannot be found in a pill, a vaccine or a chemical solution. Perhaps it comes in the form of the ability to accept the inescapability of death, and that we will never, no matter how much we talk about it, know for sure what happens to us after we die. Maybe, if we’re able to do this we can get on with the important job of celebrating life, of living it while we have the chance.

Without spoilers, it’s important to say that Joe eventually figures out that his music is an attempt to express these little moments of beauty, of sadness, of pain. His music is about life; it captures distilled moments and adds depth or layers to others. But life cannot only be about music.  

The lesson we learn alongside Joe in Soul is that it’s the little things about life that we should cherish daily. The fact that we are experiencing things, whether sad, scary, exciting, refreshing, nourishing, whatever… the very fact that we are experiencing at all, and the variety of those experiences, that’s what a lust for life is about. 

The most touching parts of the movie happen when Joe, now in the Great Before, is mistaken for a mentor soul and paired with an exceedingly stubborn unborn soul named 22 (voiced by Tina Fey). 

22 doesn’t see the point of living at all – to her, the pain and terror of life aren’t worth giving up her boring but comfortable existence in the Great Before. “You can’t crush a soul here,” she quips, “that’s what Earth is for.” 

In a scheme to get back to his body, Joe attempts to help 22 “find her spark”, or what he initially believes is her purpose. In the process an accident results in 22’s soul getting stuck in Joe’s body, while Joe’s soul inhabits the body of a cat.

It’s 22’s experiences on Earth inside Joe’s body – in Pixar’s gorgeously lifelike and humorous animation – that provides the hopeful and tender view of the world that gives the movie its pizzazz (it’s lifeblood, if we want to get cheesy.) The chaos of New York City streets, the smooth, sexy ambience of the jazz bar, the warmth of Joe’s local barber shop, all contrast starkly with the bland and peaceful Great Before. The soft colours and curves of the painless pre-birth Utopia pale beside the chaos that is life on Earth. The Great Before begins to seem like a manifestation of elevator music; but life, now that’s where it’s at. 

When it comes time for 22 to leave Joe’s body (and Earth) she reveals a pocket full of things she has collected: a pizza crust, a spool of wool that Joe’s mom used on his suit, a lollipop given to her by the barber, a seed pod that fell softly from the autumn trees. She says: “A guy on the subway yelled at me. It was scary but I liked that too.” Maybe walking could be my spark? Maybe eating?

To which Joe, in cat form, responds: “Those aren’t purposes, 22. That’s just plain old life.” Joe believes his purpose, his spark in life, is jazz. The soundtrack of Soul, which won Best Original Score at the Golden Globes, is full of jazzy tunes. Jazz, whose improvisational nature imitates the ebb and flow of life, feels like the perfect genre for Soul to centre. 

But 22 gets her spark from her time on Earth without finding her “purpose”. Which is the point. It’s not having a purpose that makes life worth living, it’s the act of living. It’s the taste of pizza, the feeling of the ocean washing over your toes, watching fireworks, crying in a movie theatre, getting butterflies when talking to a crush, feeling your lungs burn on a difficult hike, getting too tipsy at a wedding. It’s all of these things and much, much more. 

Without spoilers, it’s important to say that Joe eventually figures out that his music is an attempt to express these little moments of beauty, of sadness, of pain. His music is about life; it captures distilled moments and adds depth or layers to others. But life cannot only be about music. 

The mental health effects of Covid-19 are a very serious and somewhat unforeseen result of a global pandemic. The World Health Organisation suggests staying away from media that excessively cover Covid-19 topics and finding ways to amplify positive and hopeful images. Of course, we are not out of the woods in terms of Covid-19, and we still have to take care, wear our masks in public and physically distance. Further, if your mental health issues feel increasingly serious, you should consider professional help. 

But perhaps, for some, taking pleasure in living (whatever that looks like now) honouring just the fact that you are alive today (maybe going to see a sweet, beautiful and light-ish animated film with a killer soundtrack), can relieve a little of that terrible fear. DM/ML

©2020 Disney/Pixar. All rights reserved.
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