Soul (2020)


Where are we these days?

I suppose that question can always be asked, whatever the time or place. Those of you reading this near the time of writing will find that question looming like a stormcloud across our day-to-day life, but this question has always been relevant no matter when you’re living. Perhaps this collective vehicle we’ve built called society needs a collective maintenance check-up from time to time. ‘An unexamined life is not worth living’ is a phrase which jumped from Socrates’ mind across a vast abyss of time, culture and history, and has landed here in the discussion of Soul (2020, Dirs. Pete Docter and Kemp Powers) Pixar’s newest animated feature released exclusively on Disney+, the company’s streaming arm extending into our television sets and our lives.

So that’s where Soul is. It’s right there as a large (soon to be smaller) promotional icon on Disney+, a little windowed adventure on the collage board of choice. But on where we are, on where our souls are in these hyperactive unstable times, then where is Soul? What strands of animation have been woven together in an attempt to resonate with us, as art is so often intending to do? And if we can’t find out where we are, can we find out where we’re going?

This may be a lot to put on any one film, but perhaps a film which deals with the abstract should also be approached in an abstract way. And a warning note for those who continue to read, since the production process, exhibition and distribution of Soul has gone through one of the biggest corporate monoliths in entertainment, what this will head into is a reckoning with the internal tensions between Soul and its very existence in a part of a larger entertainment schema. The film (in an over -dramatic and yet very real way) is caught in the midst of the battle for cinema’s soul, as the turmoil over streaming vs the big screen entered an existential crisis during this pandemic. Slated to originally release on June 20th this year in cinemas, its’ exhibition and release is another sign that the times are changing.

Switch to another perspective however, and things take a very different view. Pixar Animation Studios has long been a brilliant jewel in Disney’s crown (or tiara), and has been filled with a rich display of artistry in both its’ own technical achievements and in its’ fable-esque ability to imbue stories with wisdom meant for children and adults alike. In doing so the studio has become one of the founding cornerstones of Western cinema in our time, their work plumbing the depths of human imagination through undeniably exquisite computer animation. It has done this however, under the eyes of no doubt the biggest entertainment company releasing film media for children (and some would include adults in at this point). The shining jewel of Disney’s crown has stayed polished and near immaculate through decades, but it is fixed in its’ position by a million different corporate hands holding it in place. Art usually stays allied to power, and it is important to get a lay of what that landscape means when it comes to thinking about Soul.

The film follows, the life and death and re-life of Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx); a jazz musician, a teacher, a son, a friend, a human being. Lost in the motions of daily life in a teaching job he doesn’t find fulfilment in, Joe dies suddenly and unexpectedly. Encountering the ethereal spectrum of the afterlife (referred to as The Great Beyond/The Great Before), Joe is paired with an as yet unborn soul, in an attempt to mentor them into existence by finding their spark, their reason to live. What we witness in the running time is a meditative journey through the consequences of Joe’s life, as it becomes reimagined through the eyes of 22 (voiced by Tina Fey) who careers like a wrecking ball through Joe’s built up frameworks and perspectives on getting through life. 22 is an unborn soul; cynical, reluctant and fearful of understanding life, but also free of the cultivated limitations we can impose on ourselves and have imposed on us when we live on Earth long enough.

So, a metaphysical dialogue bounces back and forth between the two, as both interrogate each other on what it even means to live an existence. A spiritual rainstorm falls from above, courtesy of Docter and Powers’ vision. To try and deny the depth of their work, to try and reduce it to just another light silly Disney film, is to also miss the point of what has made the regular work of Pixar so universal, so accessible and so beloved by its parent company. We live in a world where it has become more paramount than ever on handling the mental health aspects of our lives, and it is not by accident that the emotional resonance of Soul guides towards a healthier understanding of what it means to be alive.

Soul grounds its’ story in the African-American experience, but Pixar’s modus operandi has always been about recognising the humanity and the experiential qualities of life in whatever world you may find yourself in. Docter’s last film asked you to find humanity in anthropomorphised emotions (Inside Out, 2015) and Pixar’s output for a long time eschewed human animation (as a technical/logistical choice as well as an artistic one since computer generated animation of human figures was considerably more complex). The black experience is given a spotlight here so rarely gifted to modern media, and is enhanced (or used as window dressing and gutted depending on how cynical you are) by Pixar’s continual drive for universality and accessibility.

Especially in the media world we live in today, Soul will mean a lot more to a lot of people simply for what it represents than what it is. I’ve always worked hard on this site to try to experience films as their own internal experiences, to see what a film means in its presentation and in its knowledge; ‘Style and Substance’ and why/how it does both. But what sits at the crux of Soul, is a disconnect between its own substance and the very company which is responsible for its’ existence. Soul breathes the integrity of true art, of fables told throughout time to show us wisdom and enchantment.  It is about striking your own understanding of the world alight, away from responsibilities or weights which your spirit might be carrying unnecessarily. Perhaps that sounds too magical or ridiculous, but this is the very world Soul is predicating itself upon, a magical reality of fantasia.

But that magical reality is warped hard by the concerns of the real world. A limitation is reached, when exploring these issues in only a kid-friendly environment. In a way, am I grateful simply because Soul has figured out a way to get these questions to adults at all? One of the reasons the film will resonate significantly across audiences is because in part a lot of us may feel like this, lost and crushed by the weight of expectations which are only half our own, mixed in with the highly fractious expectations of ourselves and others. In a Disney film however, Soul can only tackle these issues in a de-fanged world, one who’s relation to the real world is at once very close but also very far since it can’t address the more complicated socio-economic reasons we may find ourselves trapped in jobs we don’t find value in. It can only address these matters through the personal, Joe’s relationship with his mum, a student, a soul. Not necessarily because it’s mistaken in doing so, but because to entertain any idea beyond the pale of palatable, personal relations would harm the earning potential of potential markets. The corporate dance to step on as few toes as possible de-fangs Soul‘s ability to speak. It is not Disney’s responsibility to educate the world, but their designed monopoly of entertainment inevitably will have an effect like that. Our own internal desires are constantly navigating a struggle in a complex architecture of many layers we have designed together to channel, guide and sometimes suppress us all collectively in various ways. Soul’s great release of understanding life is so generous, but it can’t ever say that the world around us is working hard to keep you distracted from realising its preciousness. On that Disney remains silent.

Why would a company like Disney want something like that? Primarily because it’s ethos as has been to dominate entertainment with a succession of good-return sequels and story continuations, stretching material over and over again because financially to greenlight a sequel is a much sounder investment than financing an unknown project. From Toy Story’s (1995, Dir. John Lasseter) first release, it would be another 16 years before Pixar would release any other sequels. Perhaps through their striking originality and success, they have managed to preserve an ability to still meaningfully cultivate original material in this domain, but they have certainly fallen more into step with Disney’s corporate line in the last generation or so.  Sequels are not inherently evil, but the focus on continually milking established intellectual properties has created an overwhelming current towards prioritising repeated slim variations of similar stories to make sure merchandise continues to get sold in vast quantities.

Corporate control extends further though, when Disney’s abilities and resources allow it to commandeer and marshal the resources of art at a level most can never understand. In short, this made itself apparent as I witnessed the hippie iconography of Moonwind and his ship, sound tracked to Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’. Sanded down as much as possible, Docter is free to lift the imagery of a counterculture movement and fold it into his world, while using one of the most revolutionary rock songs in a tiny snippet to allow credibility (and representation!) but without allowing any of the lyrics to be played, removing the songs tumbling context to provide glamorous set dressing. On the flip side of this, is the knowledge that the original incarnation of Mickey Mouse as Steamboat Willie is still copyright protected until 2024 nearly 100 years after its own inception, thanks in large part to the machinations of those involved at Disney. More so than any company, they have worked to shape the flow of the artistic domain we all reside in to put commercial concerns above artistic freedom or experimentation, a pool that Disney spent a great deal of time drawing from in establishing most of their own early works (most fairytales are public domain). Artistry can be pulled up into the Disney experience, but it has to be streamlined to be as inoffensive as possible. And heaven forbid trying to integrate Disney’s work anywhere else into the pool, even as their lobbying has helped create a void of artistic culture dominated by IP law. In my mind, does Disney function as a film company who sells toys, or a toy company who makes films? Of course it can be both (if not more), but where do the priorities point towards in its’ art? And what might those priorities mean for film culture outside of the film as merchandise feedback loop?

Soul to me appears caught in an existential bind, another film caught in an abyss of cognitive dissonance being carved out by Disney. Usually, I want to describe how all the elements of a film can work in tandem or against each other to create a unified vision, but in Soul a unified vision is only apparent on the surface, and it seems to be tearing itself apart with an irrepressible desire to elucidate on the human experience while having to toe the line of corporate-approved storytelling. I guess I do slightly admire this psychological dance between these poles, it is so easy to get lost in a dichotomy of anything corporations do being seen as evil, and what Disney and Pixar have continually built upon is the genuine integrity of the human endeavour to live, to love, to be fulfilled in a world which has the potential for magic bursting from all its seams. That is especially true in their films always being such spectacular feats of exquisitely rendered animation, objects and space imbued with talking fish, monsters, cars, toys, and now our own souls and their mentors.

But the integrity of the film’s soul is compromised by its’ own mentor, and moving into a world where Disney’s ambition of endless repeatable stories inside selected worlds for maximum audience retention and maximum profitability is siphoning off air to the very creative spirit it supposedly champions and wants to inspire in us through this film. The patronage of the white gloves of Mickey comes with a heavy burden, a burden perhaps that even the directors may not be fully aware of. Soul can just as easily be seen as a unconscious cry for help from its internal developers as an urgent plea for us to awaken into our own lives more readily and freely. Soul asks you to learn what it means to be free, but without ever asking you to acknowledge those who are benefitting from you staying caged. What Soul illustrates so well is how the complexity of the world can allow you to lose yourself, and how even those close to you can misalign what it means to love and care for each other in a world of day-to-day experience. For that it should be admired. But I’ve heard before that the devil covers with one hand and uncovers with the other, and what this film doesn’t say maybe should be feared, or at least understood and reckoned with.

Because if we don’t take care of our souls right, who will?


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Soul (2020)

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