There’s More to Life: Pixar’s Soul

Soul, the latest CG animated film from Disney and Pixar, speaks to me on a very deep and personal level. It’s not just that it’s about an older minority protagonist who chafes at family pressure when it comes to doing what’s safe and expected. Nor is it that the movie is set in New York City, where the familiar sights and sounds make me oddly nostalgic in a time when stepping foot outside can be a stressful decision in itself. What really hits home is one of the core messages of Soul, which is to be aware of how we as people often confuse inspiration, passion, purpose, and fulfillment—and how doing so can hold us back in life in fundamental ways.

The story of Soul follows Joe Gardner, a black middle-aged middle school music teacher who still dreams of being a professional jazz musician (the long overdue first black protagonist in a Pixar film). When a rare opportunity to play with one of the greats comes knocking, an ecstatic Joe gets caught in an accident that causes his soul to leave his body. Desperate to avoid the afterlife and get back to the land of the living (and his gig), he winds up as the mentor to 22, a soul that for thousands of years has failed to find the spark to become a full-fledged living being, and who sees her pre-life to be much more appealing than life on Earth.

Whether it’s Joe’s firm belief that his purpose in life is to play jazz, or the pre-life system that brings history’s greats in as mentors to guide those like 22 to begin life, Soul highlights the way people often think about what it means to live a great life. We celebrate those who follow their passion and transform them into monumental discoveries and achievements. We think having a greater purpose is the key to reaching greater heights. But just as Joe throughout the film is often so obsessed with his life-long aspiration that he fails to see the positive influence he gives (and receives) from those around him, it’s all too easy to feel like a failure when we focus only on destinations and not journeys.

Although I don’t see myself as being in a completely similar position to Joe, Soul made me realize something: for whatever reason, I often feel a lingering sense of guilt over not accomplishing more than I should have, or was supposed to. On a certain level, it can feel ridiculous. I’m at least fairly proud of the things I’ve managed to see and do in my life, achievements that I know took intelligence, dedication, and maybe even a bit of courage. Yet, I still see myself as rarely having ever gone the distance that can leave myself without any regrets. A career switch may have truly turned out for the better on a personal level, but still leaves me feeling that I left some potential unfulfilled. Even in the context of this blog here, I sometimes criticize myself for not having improved my writing as rapidly as I should have been, and for not having the drive to force that change upon myself. This guilt is in some ways internal and in other ways external, but the result is the same. 

Thanks to Soul, I realize now that I do indeed get caught up in conflating inspiration with passion, purpose with fulfillment, and so on. I haven’t resolved what exactly this means for me, or what it is that I ultimately will feel once I’ve sorted out these feelings and the degree to which I value them, but it has me on a long road of introspection. Not every film can do that, which makes having watched Soul all the more worthwhile.

Taking Small Steps and Huddling Over Scraps

When I originally wrote about Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, a video series which plans to explore the treatment of women in the medium, I expressed my concern that the creator Anita Sarkeesian might potentially cast aside more subtly positive portrayals of women in video games because they might still be significantly flawed. “If a medium is sexist in certain ways,” I thought, “then progress has to come in not only big steps but also small ones.” However, after reading this article about the Pixar movie Brave (warning: spoilers, though I do recommend reading it) in which the author Lili Loufbourow describes growing up with film and essentially forcing herself to deeply cherish even the most remotely positive portrayals of women in a medium which often forces them into a very limited number of character types, I find myself somewhat re-evaluating my thoughts on these matters.

Critical theorist Theodor Adorno writes about how mass culture, that is to say popular culture created by modern industry and capitalism, has a tendency to take any sort of radical idea or value and simply transform it into something palatable for the masses until its progressive value is swallowed up. I deeply disagree with Adorno in this regard for a number of reasons, namely his disregard for small steps within the area of mass culture. I still believe that it is important to look at examples of mixed results, cases where movement forward might come with a couple of steps back, and to just pay attention to places where progress is not measured solely by overall success. This is the reason why, when I write about the portrayal of women in anime and manga, I think it’s important to not just label things as “sexist” and call it a day.

His view brings some important questions to mind, however. Enlarging the sphere of discussion from sexism/feminism to the greater topic of progress itself, I have to ask myself, what is the difference between “taking a small step forward”and “huddling over scraps?” Is there a difference? Does one turn into the other when filtered through the lens of personal imagination and the changing values of a society?

My immediate feeling is that there must be a difference between taking a small step and huddling over scraps, and that the boundaries between the two are not so rigidly defined given history and context, but just the idea that the two can be conflated makes it somewhat dangerous. For that reason I now recognize that Sarkeesian and Loufbourow are essentially fighting against the same opponent, the “good enoughs” of female portrayal that pay only lipservice at best and are actually subtly regressive at worst, and that for Sarkeesian this dictates her tendency towards hard, powerful language in her videos. When subtlety is utilized, there is always the risk that it will be overlooked to such an extent that any messages given will be overwhelmed by the greater whole, or at least be perceived as such. While I prefer to try and work with the nuances myself, I have to recognize the potential pitfalls of that approach as well.

Once Upon a Time, a Girl Finished Her Grape Soda: Up

Up once again shows that when it comes to mainstream 3D animation, there’s Pixar and then there’s everybody else. Or to put it differently, the only studio not trying to be Pixar is Pixar itself.

People sometimes ask me why I like anime so much, and though I’ve mentioned in the past that to an extent it is a very personal thing independent of average level of quality in anime, there are still certain recurring traits that keep me coming back: emotional sincerity, respect towards the viewer, respect towards the medium itself, the ability to take simple premises and elevate them. Up manages to fulfill all of these and more. That is of course not to say that the reason Up is good is because it’s “like anime,” because it really isn’t, but its approach and understanding that even for a kids’ movie (or perhaps especially for a kids’ movie) not everything has to fall neatly into place remind me very much of the reasons why I got into and continue to enjoy animation. You can do so much when you’re not limited by reality, and to understand that is to understand that what I just said applies well beyond the visual aspect of animation.

Like Wall-E, Up is a very emotional movie which dares to use a hero that is not just unusual because of the way they look, but because of how the entertainment industry has restricted the roles of certain character types. In the case of Up it is Carl Fredricksen, an old man who used to sell balloons who decides to use his remaining stock to float his house to South America to fulfill a lifelong promise. He inadvertently brings along a young boy scout analogue named Russell, an eager but physically inept boy.

Carl’s curmudgeonly demeanor masks the fact that he was once a wide-eyed but shy boy dreaming of fun and adventure (somewhat similar to young Russell), as well as a man who was very much in love. It’s a mask that we are allowed to peer behind throughout the movie, giving Carl a very strong presence in every scene he’s in. We can see in his current attitude and actions the life he has led up to that point. His interactions with Russell show how easy it is to perceive the elderly as distanced from the rest of society, as well as how incorrect that notion often can be. Carl is an interesting and deep character, and I do not use the word “deep” lightly. He moved me, moved me to tears and smiles and left a deep impression.

Placing an elderly man in the main role of a movie animated or otherwise is a bold move in an entertainment industry which tends to devalue the elderly. Even when they are featured prominently in movies, they are usually placed in teacher roles, or meant to be comically cranky old men. While there’s been a recent trend for older main stars in movies as Hollywood’s big names realize their years are catching up on them (e.g. Sylvester Stallone in Rocky Balboa), most often the message these movies send is “check us out, we can still hang with the young guys.” Up however is different. Carl Fredricksen is not an old man trying to play a young man’s game. He is doing what he feels is necessary precisely because he’s old. There is no denial, there is no shame.

While I said that the movie’s strengths go well beyond the visual, there is no denying that the movie also looks good. Its style is something that I think registers with everyone no matter your age. It’s bright and colorful without bombarding the viewer and overwhelming the retinas. Character designs and backgrounds, are soft without seeming entirely innocuous. The overall three-dimensional design is of course excellent, as expected of Pixar, and if you decide to watch it with 3-D glasses, Up never overwhelms you with shots designed to tell you JUST HOW 3-D THIS MOVIE IS, unlike many other 3-D movies. The use of recurring symbols in Up is also excellent in a way that I rarely see from movies. This is not abstract symbolism, but rather the movie establishing the significance of small but emotionally precious objects, and whenever these objects are referred to or used in any way you know how much weight is put behind them, much like anything Carl says or does.

Up is exactly what a family movie should be, in the sense that it is not just a family movie. Go by yourself, go with your friends, go with your kids or your parents. It’s an intelligent movie which respects the intelligence, both mental and emotional, of its audience, and engages them with such sincerity and power that anyone who sees the movie will feel like they’ve come away from the movie well-rewarded. It will be a reward well-earned because it is almost impossible to feel like an idle observer with Up.