Movie Review: Soul

YJ Si, Editor-in-Chief


I watched the Pixar movie Soul a few days after its release, after seeing comments on Twitter praising it for its relatable characters, beautiful animation and captivating art and soundtrack. As I opened Disney+, I was expecting something along the lines of Inside Out—good, but not great. With another Pixar movie about the origin of personalities, I figured it would reach similar themes and ideas.

Soul received high praise for its historical significance: It is the first Pixar movie with a Black co-director, Kemp Power, and it is the first Pixar movie featuring a Black main protagonist—the middle school music teacher and aspiring jazz performer, Joe Gardner. These milestones are to be commended. But while the film’s characters feel real and relatable, after finishing the movie, I felt like the “origin of souls” storyline—Gardner’s death and subsequent journey to get back to it—took away from what really should have been a film about Gardner and his struggle to find fulfillment in his life—without dying.

In the first few minutes of the film, I was extremely impressed—Gardner’s passion for music and his willingness to spread that, as well as his internal conflict between a secure job and pursuing his dream, drew me to him immediately. Especially as a junior nearing an ever-closer deadline to think about where I want to go and what I want to do, it was relatable and encouraging to see Gardner still pursuing that. And when he gets the opportunity of a lifetime, Gardner displays his true musical talent and gets the gig he’s always wanted. And right after that, right after being promised everything he’s ever wanted, he dies—almost comically.

What message does this send to millions of children watching this movie? While it can be interpreted as the spontaneity of death and fragility of life, his sudden death  also makes an awkward statement. Suddenly, the idea of pursuing a dream is pulled away by a comical death, and delves into the realm of make-believe. I was left wondering why the filmmakers chose to go in that direction, rather than simply sticking with Gardner’s story of pursuing a musical career, which, due to its more realistic nature, I believe would have connected more deeply to its viewers rather than the make-believe origin of souls.

Throughout the rest of the film, Gardner mostly explores the soul-making dimension and desperately tries crawling back to his original life, sharing the experience with his soul-but-not-yet-living friend 22, who needs (but initially doesn’t want) a “spark” in order to begin life on Earth. Gardner’s desire to live and 22’s desire to not live is consistently juxtaposed until 22 is forced to experience life on Earth using Gardner’s body and realizes it may not be so bad. The film emphasizes the way she is drawn to the small things in life—walking, eating pizza, and the curious ways maple seeds fall. While this is a unique way to tell us to better appreciate the things we tend to overlook in life, it also puts Gardner’s dreams and aspirations at a bottom priority while 22 experiences life through Gardner’s body—even fighting to keep it later on. This journey develops 22’s desire to live—it detracts the value of Gardner’s dreams unnecessarily.

That’s not to say the movie isn’t good—there are still aspects of this movie I found captivating. Its recognition of the state of flow people enter when doing something with intense focus is beautifully portrayed. It shows how people get absorbed in their passions and everything aside from what they’re doing fades away.

Gardner, while playing piano, enters "the zone," becoming immersed while everything around him disappears.

A scene that stands out to me in particular is after Gardner made his debut—standing outside of the theatre, he speaks with fellow musician and long-time performer Dorothea Williams about his reaction to his success. Somehow, Gardner explains, he says he thought he would feel different, more fulfilled. After finally having achieved what he truly believed he wanted in life, somehow, he didn’t feel any different. This scene encapsulates how, as Williams puts it later, with our dreams and ambitions, we are fish looking for the ocean we are already in. Despite constantly searching for something more, if and when we do achieve those things, it’s not always what makes us satisfied.

I wish that this movie explored these aspects of life more—the idea that we don’t need to become famous or have extravagant lives in order to have meaningful ones, that mediocre lives can still be good lives, that life is worth living—without the storyline of the origin of souls. I wish this movie took more time to explore Gardner’s interpersonal relationships and backstory, and expanded on his growth and understanding of life. I think seeing more aspects of life we could personally connect to would have better resonated with many of us. After all, when we die, we’re probably not going to explore a world with baby souls and multi-dimensional beings like Gardner did for a second chance at life.

Still, Soul serves as a beautiful reminder that we are worth it, and that life is something worth pursuing. Despite its potential suffering and unkindness, the small things, like maple seeds, pizza, or even just taking a walk, can give us that spark of life that we so desperately need.