Why Pixar’s “Soul” is Problematic
Written by Lauren Koleszar
Pixar’s newest feature film offers a charming story about purpose, but at times it falls short only because it aims so high.
Pixar’s newest film, “Soul,” exists in a similar vein as the studio’s previous features “Coco” and “Inside Out,” signaling a trend from the Disney-Pixar family of studios to create films which seek to understand meaning and emotion in the context of an individual life. Many critics are calling “Soul” the most intellectual and mature Pixar film to date, noting its ambitious personification of souls before and after life on Earth, as well as introducing hard-hitting questions about passion and purpose.
We follow middle-school band teacher Joe Gardner, a Black man in New York with dreams of being a jazz musician like his late father. The premise is promising, but “Soul” quickly detours from its rich setup, proving that its narrative is too unwieldy to carry to fruition. Between its surreal portrait of the Great Before and a well-intentioned attempt at diverse representation, “Soul” leaves adults dissatisfied with its ambiguity and children without answers to important questions posed.
Each subheading below will delve into spoilers — skip to the final paragraph for a spoiler-free summary.
Not everything needs an explanation in a Pixar film, but “Soul” has an exceptional amount of unresolved subplots. Consider how valuable a follow-up scene or montage including Joe’s interactions with his student Connie or an encounter with 22 as a human on Earth would have been in solidifying the themes of the film. The same ambiguity that shapes the film’s unique tone sources a number of its plot holes. In a movie about refocusing your sense of purpose from a single passion to the way you live your life, perhaps this level of ambiguity is acceptable. However, for a movie targeting children and exploring death and purpose so seriously, it needs greater closure concerning these serious topics.
Joe, an inspiring teacher, reveals himself to be self-pitying and selfish, making him an intricately crafted protagonist. When 22 begins to express feelings for the first time, Joe grows irritated and snaps at her because he is so focused on getting his body and life back to fulfill his dream of playing in an esteemed jazz band. Later, 22 becomes a hopeless “lost soul,” and we see how large of an impact Joe’s critical words had on her. This moment has strong emotional resonance. A scene depicting the development of Joe’s relationship with his student, Connie, could have cemented Joe’s character development. The ending is unclear — Joe realizes he never fully emotionally committed to being a music teacher, but the film’s resolution offers no pay-off concerning Joe’s career as a music teacher, nor does it address if he finds stronger purpose in his new full-time position.
Unresolved subplots plague the portrayal of underdeveloped characters such as Connie and Paul. The latter of the two barely has any lines, despite the promising setup between Paul and Joe in the barber shop scene, where 22 — embodying Joe — is finally able to confront Paul’s sarcasm. When the two meet outside, the film hints at possibility of a meaningful development between Joe and Paul, but the scene is abruptly interrupted when the two-dimensional Terry mistakenly frightens Paul, leaving him huddled on the sidewalk with a crazed look in his eyes. It’s a cheap gag to grab a few laughs, and we never see Paul again.
The same ambiguity that shapes the film’s unique tone sources a number of its plot holes.
Culture & Representation
Along with showing a petrified Paul huddled on a street corner, fondling a bag of potato chips, are a number of other odd images “Soul” uses for quick laughs. It almost seems as though “Soul” offers viewers humorous alternatives to the reasons we encounter “strange” characters on the street, suggesting with other images that the hippie twirling an advertisement only seems loopy because his soul is connected to the Astral Plane; that a man may be laying on an outdoor heated air vent because the soul inhabiting his body thinks it’s fun; or that someone wandering the street in a hospital gown is acting weird because there is a new soul in his body. These are strange comedic choices that are naïve and dangerous representations of real people. Further, “Soul” is a clear effort at achieving greater representation, however, these gags allude to negative stereotypes that work against progress toward representation in popular filmography.
On a separate note, “Soul” introduces jazz culture and the power of its music, only to undermine it by the end of the film as Joe’s obsession, suggesting that jazz does not deserve as much attention as he gives it. Joe is told by his barber that it’s nice to hear him talk about something other than jazz, and there is no resolution on whether Joe helps people understand purpose and meaning through music. Rather than capitalize on this staple of African-American culture, jazz is treated as a weak backdrop that serves more as a piece of scenery than anything else. In a film aiming to represent African-American culture, this is an unusual choice that does not do justice to the cultural and emotional significance of jazz in African-American history.
Rather than capitalize on this staple of African-American culture, jazz is treated as a weak backdrop that serves more as a piece of scenery than anything else.
“Soul” offers a unique spin on the carpe diem cliche when Joe learns that there is no singular talent or interest that gives meaning to life. Rather, a special interest can provide an avenue toward understanding purpose; but ultimately, purpose is found at the decision to begin living meaningfully and truthfully in every area of life. Strangely, this was not fleshed out in an encounter with Joe’s students in which he could have put into practice what his experience with the Great Before had taught him. Without more closure, the line between finding purpose through a passion and becoming lost in an obsession grows blurry, and whether Joe’s relationship with jazz was purposeful or obsessive in the first place is unclear. This could have been solidified with an interaction between Joe and his father, who could have clarified to Joe that jazz was never his purpose or reason for living, but a means of connecting to life and purpose.
In the vein of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”, Pixar introduces kids to heavy concepts and realities that build and encourage their emotional intelligence without underestimating their critical thinking or imagination. “Soul” introduces heavy themes that, if not carried out effectively and carefully, could result in an uncomfortable and ambiguous film with unpredictable impressions left on its audience. There is a lack of clarity for kids on understanding the concepts of life, death and purpose; though adult viewers may find no issue with the ambiguous nature of the film and interpret its plot holes as deliberate and not needing traditional closure. At the heart of the film, “Soul” seeks to inspire viewers, though its means of doing so are problematic.