Rather Critical Reviews: The Conceit Of Soul

There is a great conceit at the heart of the film directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers, namely the concept of the soul and its transcending worlds.

The latest Disney-Pixar release Soul begins with squeaky jazz overlaid on the infamous logo—a voice announcing, ‘Alright! Let’s do something else!’ The scene then changes to indifferent middle schoolers in the classroom of our protagonist, Joe Gardner: a black man, jazz aficionado and music teacher. The novelty of the ‘first Pixar film featuring a black man’ fades as quickly as the self-congratulatory introduction. Of course, you’d expect the film to pivot around jazz and black culture, but it focuses more on death and the afterlife. Neither of its’ focuses deliver anything beyond a few touching moments and the reiteration of a hegemonic mythology: that of the Christian idea of a ‘soul’.

They say those who can’t, teach, but Joe is both a good teacher and a brilliant pianist in New York City. Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) plays the piano to inspired gasps, and better late than never, is given an opportunity to be on stage with the celebrated Dorothea Williams and her jazz quartet. It is all he has ever wanted, but predictably (and maybe a little too on the nose), he dies before that can happen.

The main premise of Soul comes to light after Joe’s death. Joe is now rendered an opaque blob-like blue; the film repeating the common trope of depicting marginalized identities as animals or unidentifiable creatures in mainstream animation. Joe is surprised to find himself on an escalator to what resembles an afterlife, known as the ‘Great Beyond’ in the film. This transcendental realm is where most of the film takes place, and where most of the narrative is centered.

There is a great conceit at the heart of the film directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers, namely the concept of the soul and its transcending worlds. We never have insight into the Great Beyond or the afterlife, but Joe does take us to the ‘Great Before’, a pastel landscape of glowing infrastructures where souls are randomly assigned a numbered identity, personalities, mentoring, and ‘a spark’ or an ‘earth pass’ before they are born. The conceit of the soul is not new, and nor is its story or the questions it asks of the audience.

Reviews have remarked on the metaphysical concerns and its wide philosophical scope of the film, but the myth the film explores remains shockingly similar to a Christian one—where the essential nature of a person is retained after their death, ascending to higher realms. The soul, the ascent through the escalator, and even the afterlife appear within the theological mould of Christianity.

This is all the more shocking since blobs from other cultures (Inuit, Hindu, Chinese and others) get silently sucked into the electric generator of the glowing ball that is the afterlife. There is no room for an alternative or variant to the Christian myth-making of the soul; any other opportunity to imagine otherwise is absorbed, literally, into the background.

The Christian myth, however, is modernized, but as a Picasso-inspired sketch in the movie remarks, this modernizing is only ‘a rebranding’. The Great Beyond (the afterlife) and the Great Before (where souls are conceived and taught) appear to resemble a corporation or a modern workplace. The location is called a ‘You Seminar’—a pop psychology trick, akin to the games Human Resources personnel play to make workers adapt better to a Protestant work ethic.

The realm of the souls is a corporation where files and accounts accumulate, and personnel conduct, manipulate and program relations in a soothing tone. The modern Christian myth remains unchallenged and furthered by familiar assumptions – made palatable to a younger, hipper audience through gamified tasks, space-age music, and the atmosphere of an informal workplace.

But even the underground and untraversed sections of the Great Before, sections the corporation or the personnel have not (yet) co-opted, seem trite. Joe, a jazz musician is taken to a group of white hipsters to receive their expertise about returning to his body. If Joe’s community and his music had not been side-lined before, these hipsters come in on a ship playing Bob Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’. The periphery of the Great Before is likened to a trip back in time to the 60s, to Woodstock. The directors appear to have forgotten Joe and his influences entirely, as they navigate their white Christian landscape.

Other than a wall of diversity, which contains nameplate stickers of influential and bad mentors in far-flung languages (Hindi, Thai, Japanese, and so on), the Great Beyond is static in its Christian, American centricity. The children’s film is marketed by Disney to a global audience, but the narrative merely tokenizes the rest of the world as stickers. All they do is depict a relatable globalization. And while there are nods to the quantum sciences and non-realist art, the transcendent and omnipresent realms remain stable. It is a comforting metaphysics placed with an easy cartography, not a challenging one.

While the movie is consistent with the metaphors it needs to employ to make this Christian myth relatable, it loses focus when trying to connect art, music and the transitions through the various realms with what’s happening on screen. When Joe runs, he falls through the analogue and into a more digital landscape. The ideas of a historical transition, as Joe traverses the realms of the Great Beyond to the Great Before, are not developed, only remarked upon through meek associations and references. The art in the film attempts to be intricate – in order to depict this movement through the ages – as animation of different forms of music that have changed through the years revealing a too obvious shift from notations to digital manipulations. However, the music itself (by Trent Reznor, of ‘Nine Inch Nails’) does not consider these cultural and technical changes. It is only background noise in the film – a wasted opportunity in a movie where the protagonist is passionate about music.

Joe, in an attempt to make the best of the situation, pretends to be a mentor for unborn souls, sticking on the name-tag of a successful white man to enter an auditorium, and is given a mentee. He meets a young soul for whom he is now responsible; Joe must light a spark within them so they qualify for an earth pass (or birth). ‘22’ is a genderless blob (who Joe questions for sounding like a white woman, voiced by Tina Fey), apathetic and hopeless about all that the earth and birth offers. They have refused to drop to the planet for a long time.

On the other hand, Joe desperately wants a pass and to return to his body to play his career-making gig. After introductions are made and real identities are revealed to each other, the both of them hatch a plan that will work to benefit them both. Joe helps 22, 22 helps Joe—and they decide to go off the uncharted path together.

The film progresses through bounds and leaps; Joe is reincarnated as a cat and 22 ends up in Joe’s body, and they move between Earth and the mysteries of life beyond it. Docter and Kemp are committed to exploring Joe’s relationships, especially the passion for music that keeps these relationships animated. But greater attention is paid to life through 22’s eyes—the young ‘soul’ experiences sensations and colours and discovers how strangely people and trees behave. Predictably after these vivid experiences, 22 realizes that they want to live. They want their life to imitate jazz – enjoying themselves through new and improved means. 

The irony of the genderless blob learning to appreciate the “wonders of life” through Joe’s experiences might get lost in all the mixed metaphors. The conclusion seems even somewhat insensitive when you think about what Joe, a black man, has gone through – denied opportunities as he struggles to even make a working class living – beyond experiencing sensations and the peculiaritiy of trees. It almost insinuates that Joe was never grateful for any of that and pits the perspectives of these souls against each other.

The only redeeming factor of Soul has to be its critique of pedagogy and the ‘self-help/productivity’ ideology. Much in the way that Joy’s character in Inside Out critiqued ‘toxic positivity’ as harmful to an individual, the apathetic character of 22 lightly critiques their own position within the Great Before, and the way it resembles institutions such as schools and families. In the Great Before, unborn souls are numbered personas who are given personalities (‘aloof’, ‘playful’, etc.) at random. They are then, equally at random, assigned an influential mentor (Dalai Lama, Jack Kirby, Michael Jordan, etc.) to help them find a ‘spark’. They lack nothing to be inspired by, and despite the resources at hand, their emotional and social needs are not met. They are profiled and boxed, and their capacity to play is not explored. Similarly, Joe’s single-minded passion for jazz and a career playing jazz, is not a determinant of his own well-being. As the film unfolds, we find that he already possesses a robust community and a vibrant life as a good teacher, son and neighbour.

This critique, however, is not a systemic contention and the attempt is lost in a jumble of metaphors. Joe’s position and circumstances are never quite taken into account, and neither does 22 go beyond their individual experiences with the Great Before. The film remains steadfastly anchored to Soul’s climactic happy end, leaving this implicit critique behind. 

There’s art – and enough to appreciate about Soul, and the life it demands from the Earth – from the pizza rat to the lollipop and Joe’s community – but it ultimately lacks coherence and the resolve to be anything but a stickler for familiar tropes and convenient fictions.

About the author

Shinjini Dey

Shinjini has been trying not to write so she could read everything. She works as an editor, drops out of most jobs, and doesn't care for grammar. She lives in Hyderabad, India.