TThere comes a time in the life of a writer, a director and, perhaps, a company in which the days are shortened, the shadows lengthen and the contemplation of the inevitable must begin. The guy in the cape with the retro turf gear can no longer be ignored: death. In the latest Pixar film, Soul, mortality comes with a bad moment for protagonist Joe Gardner, a New York jazz player about to give the concert of his life when he falls down a sewer. After 2017’s Coco and this year’s Onward, this is Pixar’s third death movie in as many years. Is this fixation the Californian animation giant’s midlife crisis in multi-million dollar CGI form?
Soul, directed by Pete Docter, is an elegant offering with clever coloring book metaphysics in the vein of his 2015 film Inside Out, as Joe tries to escape the “Great Beyond” and return to his body, through the “ Great Before ”. This is the realm where nascent souls must find their spark, their animating passion in life, and are then sent to Earth. Visually drawing on Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death, tackling the dark theme for children with a life-affirming nonchalance, and, featuring the company’s first black main character, a huge punch of diversity, is a typical style. elegant and pleasant to the four quadrants. , entertainment package that increases the price of shares. This is what Pixar does.
But the company has been showing its age lately. An almost uniformly dazzling series of movies culminated in 2010’s Toy Story 3, but under Disney’s direction, a tiredness set in: too many sequels and originals that lacked the conceptual flair of that brilliant first spree. Perhaps the injection of morbidity is the way Docter, also Pixar’s creative director since 2018, has planned to take the studio out of its corporate hiatus, reconnect it with important topics, and get its mojo back.
Maybe it’s not so premeditated. Perhaps it is a natural consequence of where the best Pixar employees are in life: Docter is 52 years old, entering the decade where, as parents die and aging really begins, death begins to turn into something. More than a theoretical party poop. Lee Unkrich, director of Coco, set in the Mexican “Land of the Dead,” is 53 years old, although last year, in a middle-aged decision, he left Pixar to spend more time with his family. Onward director Dan Scanlon is only 44 years old, but definitely, to use a golf metaphor, he turns to the last nine years. His film, set in a kind of Dungeons and Dragons-flavored suburb full of centaur cops and a manticore restaurant manager, is the one that deals most directly with death in the form of loss. His teenage elf brothers attempt to complete a “visitation spell” that will bring back their father, a story inspired by Scanlon’s own life, as his father died in a car accident when he was one year old.
Death, however, has always lurked in Pixar’s filmography in the sense of the slow passage of time. Docter’s second film, Up, was widely praised for its 10 minute starting sequence– A silent prelude chronicling the years of the main character Carl’s marriage to Ellie, his inability to have children, and his eventual passing. It was a startlingly bleak opening for a child’s adventure. The driving force behind the Toy Story movies is Woody’s fear, and the struggle to accept, which may become redundant as his owners Andy and Bonnie grow older. In terms of toys, this is death: haunted by the prospect of being sent to the garbage heap or, in the fourth film, to the junk shop; decrepit and sad lives that are the opposite of being alive in the hands of a child.
This fear of obsolescence, of being thrown into the shadowlands without the light of imagination, is as much a part of Pixar’s identity as the cute corner lamp. It’s also there in Wall-E’s vision of the planetary landfill, an accumulation of missing human objects and history. Or another dungeon: the Memory Dump in Inside Out, where Riley’s imaginary childhood friend, Bing Bong, must be scrapped to allow him to grow up.
Pixar understands this topic so well because the birth of the company itself meant a moment of obsolescence of pop culture, of the old analog world before the 90s, to usher in the new digital era of infinite gaming. “Memento Woody” could be his motto. Toy Story is steeped in nostalgia, for the era of wholesome post-war entertainment featuring characters like Woody and Bo-Peep. But no matter how lovingly it evokes that feeling of that world, down to the seams on a Friesian cowboy vest and the cheap plastic snap of Buzz Lightyear’s wings, it did as much to kill him as anyone.
Consumers expect a lot more these days, and Hollywood’s digital CGI wizards can conjure up anything that meets our expectations. Its limitless ability to span all eras of pop culture past and simulate any reality, from a Lilliputian toy paradise to a bone-rattling Dia de los Muertos fantasy, only reflects our culture’s hunger for entertainment and continual distraction. Pixar is part of the same Silicon Valley San Francisco elite as elsewhere with companies like the one backed by Google. Calico, is busy trying to “cure” death. Perhaps representing that great intangible is the only frontier left to conquer its entertainment arm, irresistible to those with a lingering sense of ontological horror: that if you have the divine ability to create anything, does that mean that deep down, nothing really? ?
It’s no wonder Pixar’s metaphysics only comes in primary colors. Dealing with death in his recent films, he has preferred to approach JM Barrie’s “tremendously great adventure” line, with Coco and Soul turning death into another great playground for children to explore. Soul was inspired when Docter realized, in the seconds after his son was born, that his innate personality was already formed. But, fundamentally rooted in Joe Gardner’s quest to return to Earth, play his concert, and prove to himself that his life has not been a meaningless waste of time, the film is very much an adult’s perspective on the death. It’s another mark on the side of the ledger that says Pixar is secretly not in the business of making children’s movies.
Docter is also a practicing Presbyterian who gives interviews to church media, but neither Soul, Coco nor Onward have an obvious faith agenda; You have said that the company is not about converting people. But nonetheless, there is a kind of theology to this work, a subtle individualism visible in Soul’s search for a personal spark in the Big Before, which looks a lot like a soft-play Silicon Valley campus. Or, coexisting with the veneer of Latin family values, Coco’s insistence that her young mariachi Miguel should not ignore his musical vocation. Similarly, searching for his father allows young elf Ian to shake off self-esteem issues and become a true sorcerer. That’s the meaning of life as a Pixar corporate evangelist – living your true potential.
It remains to be seen if that message is strong enough to act as a form of comfort in a year where death has been closer than most. And Covid-19 could be the amuse-bouche of the 21st century for an even bigger environmental catastrophe that would mean the end possibly hundreds of millions more people. Wall-E sounded an early warning about that, but Pixar’s articles of faith – play and imagination – stand strong in the face of such darkness. Even in the valley of death, there was an inspiring videotape and a comedy roach.
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.