December 31, 2020
The following excerpt is from William Saroyan’s 1934 short story titled The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze:
“Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”
It is this theme that underpins Pixar’s latest film, Soul. The esteemed studio’s most mature and intellectual endeavor to date, Soul largely avoids Pixar’s earlier efforts (Toy Story, Up) to layer a children’s story atop more complex themes, ripe for their parents’ picking. Instead, Soul weaves a plot around existentialism and scores it to the pulsating rhythms of jazz — it is about as suited for children as a Nietzsche pop-up book. Soul is a film that you can watch as a budding college student and then rewatch, years later, with the seasoned mind of a working professional, to find new meaning and appreciation.
Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is a middle-aged elementary school band teacher with a passion for jazz. As he teaches and inspires his flock of trombone and saxophone and trumpet players, Gardner’s dreams loom large. He yearns to follow his father’s path as a touring, gigging jazz pianist.
It’s on the day that Gardner finally gets his big break — an opportunity to accompany a jazz quintet — that his life forever changes. He falls down a manhole, only to awaken as a spirit in the realm where souls are spawned and prepped for life on earth.
In the afterlife, Gardner meets a soul named Twenty-two, voiced by Tina Fey. A bona fide cynic, Twenty-two actively avoids being sent to live on earth, instead choosing to remain in the metaphysical world. “Don’t worry, you can’t crush a soul here. That’s what life on earth is for,” she jokes.
Throughout the film, Gardner and Twenty-two’s attitudes clash. Gardener, feeling that his life exclusively derives meaning from playing and performing music, tries to convince Twenty-two that the raison d’être of life is some grand end-goal — in Gardner’s case, becoming a famous jazz musician. Retrospectively glancing through his life, Gardener is myopically unable to see beyond his hardships and rejections as a hopeful pianist, overlooking the importance of his feats as a music teacher. “My life was meaningless,” he sighs.
Meanwhile, Twenty-two, never having lived a life of her own, is skeptical of the entire enterprise of living. She sardonically quips, “I already know everything about Earth, and it’s not worth the trouble.”
Gardner attempts to sway Twenty-two through his erroneous interpretation of life’s meaning by running her through a conveyor belt of careers. He hurls everything at her, from baking to firefighting to artistry to librarianship, hoping that by some miracle, Twenty-two would discover the importance of life.
Pixar explores the true meaning of life through its storytelling prowess. When Twenty-two has a fleeting chance of experiencing life — real life, on Earth — she quickly realizes the litany of joys that stem from every trivial facet of living. Everything from biting into a greasy slice of New York City pizza, to merely squatting on a street corner to bask in the sun’s warm glow and feel the lush autumn breeze against the skin as winged samara seeds gently descend through the air, further kindles her newfound appreciation for the gift of life. All those inconsequential happenings that Gardner instead scoffed at, claiming, “those aren’t really purposes for life; that’s just regular old living.”
This is the idea that shines through Soul: The joy of living isn’t some crop to harvest upon accomplishing a goal at the end of the journey. Instead, life is glittered and made precious by the gamut of trivial experiences along the way, however banal they may seem.
The key to Soul’s storytelling luster is its music. Concurrently taking place in two different worlds, Soul deftly shimmies from a fast-paced, dynamic New York City to the languid afterlife, aestheticized by blending Picasso’s surrealist portraits with Pixar’s more cartoonish animation. The soundtrack bridges these disparate worlds: The hustle and bustle of New York are brought to life by the pulsating grooves in Jon Batiste’s original jazz soundtrack. In the metaphysical world, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross paint a landscape of eclectic sounds to match the enigmatic aura of the spirit world. As Gardner first enters the world beyond, each new dimension and fragment he encounters is defined by a unique resonance or beat.
In the end, like most 20th-century music recordings, the film simply fades. It doesn’t resolve into a single note or chord. We don’t know if Gardner finds solace in a lifetime of gigging as a jazz pianist or instead soothes his soul in musical pedagogy. But that’s the point — that’s life. It’s unpredictable and ambiguous. Nobody knows how the end of the journey will look, much less whether it will garner satisfaction. It’s the little things along the way that make it worthwhile. Pixar’s Soul exudes this idea with spades of panache. As Saroyan’s timeless advice goes, try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.
Originally Published on The Daily Wire