Essays · Movies

The Middle-Aged Protagonist of ‘Soul’ is the Hero My Child-Self Needed

Pixar’s latest endeavor is a crushing confrontation of self, but it offers tools to battle the inevitable onslaught of doubt.
Pixar Soul
By  · Published on December 25th, 2020

Another existential crisis rests at the center of Pixar‘s new film, Soul. The animation studio is clearly populated by anxiety-riddled creators, sharpening their worries into cathartic daggers designed to surgically alleviate their similarly afflicted audience. They don’t need Nick Fury; wisdom is their stinger.

What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s one of the first questions to terrify. The implication being that the care-free bliss of childhood comes stamped with an expiration date. Desperate to answer, at a too-damn-young age, we cobble together a solution, and with every passing year, our on-the-fly childhood response solidifies into a mission statement.

Some dreams are more attainable than others, but all require work and a whole lot of luck. Doors are always opening around you, but the door imagined during childhood may never come. It may not even remain a desirable door.

Would your thirteen-year-old self recognize your forty-year-old self? This question is even scarier. It’s a confrontation with disappointment. Are you satisfied with where you are today? Be it yes, no, or maybe, you are where you are.

If I had seen Pixar’sĀ Soul either before or slightly after the first question was presented to my child-self, I would have had one more instrument in my toolbox to defend the inevitable onslaught of doubt — the real monster, that second question. Uncertainty cannot be conquered, but management is feasible. The quicker it’s navigated, the healthier and happier your psychological state.

Directors Pete Docter and Kemp Powers present their hero at the crossroads of who he wanted to be and who he is. Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is a brilliant jazz pianist who pays the bills as a middle school substitute teacher. On the day his school presents him with a permanent position and health care, he also nabs a seat in the band of iconic saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). One musical gig does not equal security, but it is one step closer to the fantasy life he once envisioned.

The possibility sends him bouncing across the sidewalk. With his eyes on the dream, he misses the reality before him. An open manhole cover swallows him whole. When his eyes open, they’re blinded by a bright beam of light. His days of questioning are over; what could have been never was and never will be.

Joe Gardner is now a little blob of blue, a soul free of a body. Other happy smudges greet him on the stairway as they pass into the white, and the temptation of what’s beyond is not nearly as loud as the sizzling pop they make as they pass through. The sound strikes frantic horror within Joe, and he screams into a blue blur as he turns heel and runs.

In his flight from the afterlife, he encounters the You Seminar. It’s a school of sorts, where young souls develop their passions before inhabiting a newborn child on Earth. Joe convinces the surrealist squiggles in charge that he’s a qualified counselor and the right candidate to encourage the unruly 22 (Tina Fey) into settling for a lifetime of Earthly confinement. Joe’s real goal is to snatch 22’s boarding pass and get his human butt back to Dorothea Williams.

The frenzy and thirst Joe deploys while manipulating the other afterlife counselors and 22 highlights behavior we’re all capable of unleashing. The laughs he elicits sting with recognizability. Given the same situation, I’d act in a similar fashion. I have acted in such a way — I’ve flailed and scrambled over others in the dash to accomplish. Fake it till you make it.

However, it’s in the faking where opportunity resides. Playing counselor gives Joe a script to evaluate the life he had and still wants. Soul 22 is a stubborn brat who refuses to consider the potential joy that awaits on Earth. Before Joe can rob 22 of their passage to our planet, he needs to push them into wonder.

Pizza! You will live for pizza! It’s a delicacy that must be tasted to achieve comprehension. It’s not a delight to hang a life on, but it’s one that can get you through a day. Stack one unexpected pleasure atop another and satisfaction, and maybe nirvana, is possible.

Joe stretches wildly to uncover the littlest of fancies on Earth. In this state of overeager elasticity, he becomes a believer again. The little joys are what matter most; all he needed to do was respect them with some attention. On any given day are touches of elationĀ to be found. They’re not hidden, they’re in plain sight.

In his pursuit of the childhood dream, Joe stumbled out of synch with the infinite enjoyments available. The questions took control of his headspace. Surrounded by so many uncertainties in Pixar’s Soul, he never bothered to ask, “What happens if he gets what he wants?”

Success of any order is not a finish line. It’s another starting point. The only finish line is death, and Joe’s nailed that already.

When I reach my conclusion, I hope not to know regret. I maintain many goals, several of them left over from youth. I’m hungry to slay them.

Pixar’s Soul will not cause me to cease in their pursuit, but the film gave me the gift of a pause. Roses are at my feet. I should smell them.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)