Soul 2020: Dealing With Death in a Children’s Movie

 How does a children’s movie like Soul 2020 deal with death? Let’s find out the ways in which death is presented within this movie.

Soul is a 2020 movie directed and written by Pete Docter. Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey voice the main characters. The movie is produced by Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios. Death is a topic that is one of the major themes of Soul 2020. We shall be examining the way the movie deals with death, considering it is a movie marketed mainly towards children.

The Story of “Soul” 2020 Movie

The protagonist of the movie Soul is a school band teacher, Joe Gardner. He is a jazz piano musical enthusiast based in New York. Joe is fed up without the fulfillment of being able to achieve his dream of becoming a Jazz pianist. By some stroke of luck, he gets to audition for a performance in his idol Dorothea Williams’s troupe. He gets through the audition and lands a performance that very evening.

"Soul" 2020 Movie Poster
Soul 2020 Movie Poster

Elated about being so close through his dreams, he loses awareness of his surroundings and ends up falling through an open manhole in the middle of the street. This kills him, and he finds himself in a different realm as a soul waiting to disintegrate into the blinding “Great Beyond”.  Full of fear and desperation to return to complete his dream, he runs away to the “Great Before”. This is a space where un-born souls train to receive a “spark” and personality to be able to be born on Earth. There he meets 22, an un-born cynical soul. They both set out on an adventure to get Joe back to his life.

The Sugar-Coating of Death

 In Soul 2020, Death is presented in a rather palatable manner. It is a children’s movie after all.  This might be necessary as it is a children’s movie. The event of Joe’s death is not very extremely graphic, but almost comical. Even in the portrayal of the afterlife, the form of the souls is drawn as adorable iridescent figures. The color palette of the movie is very bright. The soul counter of the “Great Beyond” is a personified streak of neon lights. The tone throughout the movie is not very heavy either. The magical spirit world also gives a sense of security, that death is not the end.

Joe and 22 in The Great Before in "Soul" 2020
Joe and 22 in The Great Before in “Soul” 2020

Despite all this, the messages that it tries to drive home are not necessarily something children are only concerned with. The themes and messages are something that resonates and makes a different sense for adults.

Death Disrupting A Good Life

Joe Gardener teaching Music to the school band
Joe Gardener teaching Music to the school band

Joe Gardener is a middle-aged man on the verge of achieving his dream before sudden death. His death is not a good death. He is yet to complete his life. In modern times, 50 is an early age to die. Joe does not fulfill these criteria. Hence, the first thing he says when he is on the way to The Great Beyond is that he is not ready to die before his performance. Death disrupts his life, and hence he runs away to defy it. Chaos ensues, as Joe runs away and tries to get back to his body at all costs. He cannot prevent death but wants to postpone it, till he has fulfilled his social obligations and achieved satisfaction, his dream of being a Jazz Pianist.

The Search for the Meaning of Life in “Soul” 2020

 In The Great Before, Joe meets an unborn soul with an outlook completely opposite to his. 22 has never been born but is already cynical about life. This prevents 22 from being able to take birth. Joe, on the other hand, was extremely sure about what his purpose of living was right from the beginning. His case was that of being snatched away right before hitting what he thought would be the peak achievement of his life. Death prompts people to question what their identity is.  When the unborn 22 and the almost dead Joe meet, both end up getting a new perspective on life.

Firstly, 22 acquires a will to live from its experience on Earth. 22 is enchanted with the life on Earth, so much so that its cynicism turns to a new desire to live.

Joe in cat's body and 22 in Joe's body in "Soul" 2020
Joe in cat’s body and 22 in Joe’s body in “Soul” 2020

 Joe is the next one to have an epiphanic awakening. After managing to go back to Earth, he finally achieves his dream. However, after achieving his dream, he realizes that this was perhaps not the most fulfilling event in his life. He feels empty and has lost the goal that he held on to all his life. Life is suddenly not of value, as he has already completed the one event that he aspired to derive his joy from. For him, this performance was an end in itself, hence he no longer needed to live.

Joe‘s Suicide

 Joe finally realizes what made him happy in his life: his everyday normal social life. He realizes, that his big goal had been achieved, and he had already had a satisfactory life. This makes him finally agree to give up his life completely. One could view this as suicide. He realizes that life had no meaning or purpose. Joe lets 22 have its life, to live its dream of Earthly Life. He was perhaps now aware of that “absurdity” that Albert Camus talks about in the Myth of Sisyphus.

Joe willingly going on his way to The Great beyond
Joe willingly goes on his way to The Great beyond

Joe is about to finally become one with The Great Beyond, albeit reluctantly when he is intercepted by one of the helpers from The Great Before. They tell him, that they are grateful to him for helping 22 finally find the desire to live, hence they will let him go back to his body. He now has a second chance at life.

Reviving Joe in Soul 2020

In a children’s movie, killing one’s body and soul might not sit well with many viewers. Most do not want to expose children to death. Moreover, despite his realization, Joe is still not of the age that is deemed worthy of death. He is what can be classified as “middle-aged”, a time in life when one is most involved with life. Moreover, if he were to leave suddenly this way, in the cinema it would amount to a sort of suicide. Suicide is a taboo in the modern world as well.

Joe gets a second chance at life in "Soul" 2020
Joe gets a second chance at life in “Soul” 2020

After returning to his life, Joe is not morose. He realizes that life is not about the “spark”  or a grand meaning. He is content with this and hence happy to live life as is.

“ What is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying”

Albert Camus, 1995

This is true the other way round as well. The absurd meaninglessness of life, the mundane is what re-ignites Joe’s zest for life. He is satisfied with what he has. Joe is re-born with a new perspective on life. He strides forward to live his life, till his death comes back to him. By the end, he is unafraid of life or death now.

Concluding Thoughts Regarding “Soul” 2020

Soul is a children’s movie, made in 2020, not very long ago. While one can say that there has been a softer approach to death, one cannot say these denials of death are not present in most human social content. Joe does not die, although he closely brushes through it. This gives him the thriving energy to live. However, death, in reality, is final and not so easily reversible.

Moreover, the medium of cinema itself makes it impossible for the finality of death to be portrayed in any manner. Even if it was perhaps, not a children’s movie, and a character died, the character can come back to life again, when one re-watches the movie… In Soul, there is a further denial of it, within the temporal plane of the movie itself.

It does give one a positive feeling about life itself to watch this movie, but the discomfort with the inevitability of Death still lies within us, masked by attempts to hold on to meaning in this absurdity called life.

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