Suppose Freud’s theories into the human psyche were more sanitised of his obsession with sexuality and his predictions and understanding were more life-affirming. In that case, it might have resembled the theme of Soul, Pixar’s newest offering.

Many would surely assume that it is about heaven and hell, sins and misdeeds just by its title. But for Peter Docter, the film’s director, it is about purpose. That is what he and his co-writers see in souls. It is not about moralising and being preachy – those without sin may cast the first stone. It is about something much more mundane.

At first, the film suggests that it is about the centrality of purpose to the human soul, or "life force" or "essence," or whatever it is people like to call it. That is why the movie opens with Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle school music teacher, trying to get his class to play as a band. He gets frustrated but only proceeds to tell them how he fell in love with music – specifically jazz – when he was a kid. It was his "purpose" in life.

Unfortunately, he never caught a break until one day a former student of his calls. An acclaimed Jazz player is performing at a local club. The band’s piano player though could not make it. They need someone to fill his place.

Joe accepts right away. He auditions for the band, and he blows their minds away. They want him to start, pronto. He could not believe his luck - finally, he will get to show the world the skills he has been honing for years; his purpose in life; the destination all roads in his life have been heading toward.

And then he falls into a maintenance hole and dies.

The next thing he knows, he is in a limbo state, heading in a straight line toward a great glowing light – imagery obviously inspired by Abrahamic stories. But Joe is not going to go into the light so easily. He fights the pull of it, runs in the other direction and escapes into what is known as the Great Before – it is where all the souls get made.

There, he disguises himself as another dead person (in the afterlife, the security is pretty lax and the line separating it from the material world very porous) who was chosen to serve as a guide to new souls that are yet to be born on earth inside a body. He is teamed up with an unborn soul known only as 22 (Tina Fey).

He is given the task of guiding her to find her "spark," the thing that makes people want to live, and every soul needs to be born on earth. Unfortunately, 22 is a nihilist to shame Nietzsche and sees no purpose in living. Joe has to help her find that spark while also trying to get back home.

From the movie's description, it is clear that the film somewhat avoids the interpretation of souls in the Abrahamic religious tradition. It sees a soul not as something that was flung upon the material world. It embraces a more Buddhist interpretation, where the soul is not this concrete, unchanging thing. It is more of a state and is a great deal more tethered to the material world and experiences therein.

Life is thus not about success. It is not even about having a purpose. It is about choosing to live. The answer to what is life, in Soul, is just living and experiencing things – pretty mundane.

The film is not perfect, especially in one significant aspect of its ending. It cannot bring itself to be tough on its protagonist. It takes away from the message that the good comes with the bad and that we cannot accept getting away with our choices so easily.

Still, this is perhaps the most adult movie since Ratatouille, Wall-E and Up, all of which had adult themes. With Soul, they are measured, ponderously narrated films that insist on finding grandeur in small things; and in finding answers to questions that have been hidden in plain sight all along.

PUBLISHED ON Jan 03,2021 [ VOL 21 , NO 1079]

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