What life on Earth is for: animated films and the pandemic

In most countries, new film releases have played out over the past year or so within the four walls of living rooms, on the small screens of television sets, laptop screens, or tablets. But how do we respond when the conditions of crisis are reflected back to us in those films? 2020’s three most talked about animated works – Onward (directed by Dan Scanlon), Wolfwalkers (Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart), and Soul (Pete Docter and Kemp Powers) – challenge the preconceptions of ‘comfort’ cinema and show how turning to films during the Covid-19 pandemic has offered valuable lessons on navigating crisis, isolation, and solitude.

A conveyor belt of narratives that actively discuss Covid-19 or are completely about it is already a wheel in motion, a collection of work falling variously on a spectrum bookended by the verisimilitude of the documentary 76 Days and the silliness of the horror film Host. The conditions of crisis are already a popular interpretative strategy, too. Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, for example, has received much retrospective critical interest since mid-2020 due its accidental foresight.

Onward, Wolfwalkers, and Soul symbolise a more implicit crisis reading than Contagion but were also written before ‘pandemic’ became the most used and inescapable word in the English language. They offer aspirational stories of imagined possibilities and have resonated profoundly with spectators watching them at different stages of last year – March, early December, and late December, respectively. Their pertinence to the global situation was and is compounded by the license of implausibility historically supplied by the animation genre. Each justifies the importance of turning to cinema in a time of crisis, transgressing the status of film for children or comfort cinema for adults, drawing on fantasy to provide an empowering symbol of hope but also an inadvertent roadmap to better understand a pandemic defined by the inability to go anywhere, see anyone, or do anything.

The three films share a centralised narrative objective that defies tangible and corporeal possibility, so are best read on the terms of metaphysics.

Set in a suburban fantasy world, Pixar’s Onward follows two elf brothers as they set out on a quest to find a magical artifact that will temporarily bring back their dead father. Wolfwalkers, the final instalment of Tomm Moore’s ‘Irish Folklore Trilogy’ and latest release from his studio Cartoon Saloon, is the story of young apprentice hunter Robin Goodfellowe, who learns she can turn into a wolf at night and joins a mysterious tribe defined by the same enchanted capability. Soul, Pixar’s subsequent release and spiritual sequel to Inside Out, involves middle school music teacher Joe Gardner’s attempts to reunite his soul and body after they are accidentally separated on the day of a trial performance that might give him his break as a jazz musician.

Free from the restrictions of realist storytelling, the films revolve around out-of-body experiences that achieve what we have not been able to during this pandemic – namely, connect with loved ones. Onward’s Lightfoot brothers strive to reconnect with their dead father but also each other; Soul’s Joe Gardner does so with himself, literally but also on the level with his dreams of professional and personal fulfilment; and Wolfwalker’s Robin Goodfellowe intends to with both her missing mother and the father she assumes a lack of understanding with, but who really just wants what is best for her as a single parent struggling with the loss of his wife.

Connection is the destination, but these films make you work to reach it, as is so often the trajectory of animated storytelling. In 2006, legendary film critic Roger Ebert famously discussed how ‘a film director, like an orchestra conductor, is the lord of his domain, and no director has more power than a director of animated films. He is set free from the rules of the physical universe and the limitations of human actors, and can tell any story his mind can conceive.’ But it is not unique for one of these directors to be responsible for a film that does employ a rulebook to underpin its imagination, suggesting a limit to the rule breaking quality of fantasy. Fantasy is the defining mode of animation, but within this the notion of learning and lessons is completely central to the genre’s storytelling formula. For Onward, Wolfwalkers, and Soul, the lessons concern navigating crisis and the rulebook details how to deal with attendant feelings of loss, isolation, and solitude.

Perhaps the best encapsulation of these examples of positive learning comes during Soul. It also comes deceptively packaged as one of the film’s many throwaway witticisms: Traversing ‘the Great Before’ and getting the lay of the land with the help of a soul by the name of 22, Joe witnesses a piece of the landscape fall on a group of souls who then scatter away unharmed. As 22 quips: ‘Can’t crush a soul here. That’s what life on Earth is for.’

Almost everywhere in 2020 and in many parts of the world still in 2021 as I write this, we can only speculate what ‘life on Earth’, what normal, is like. As is the full circle epiphany in Soul, and as we ourselves must cling onto outside of its fiction (or that of Onward, Wolfwalkers, or any other film for that matter): earth is in fact only crushing if circumstances make it so. Once that difficult period of isolation and solitude reaches its end, it will be transformative, rewarding, and quite beautiful. On this new earth, our turn to cinema will remain a personal and collective necessity – but we are fortunate enough that it will be something experienced with others.


Image: a sketch from Pixar’s Soul.

George Kowalik

George Kowalik is a PhD candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant at King's College London, a short fiction writer, and a freelance culture writer. He is also Assistant Editor at Coastal Shelf. His recent and forthcoming publications include Avatar Review, Derailleur Press, Offscreen and Vague Visages, and in 2020 he was shortlisted for Ouen Press’ Short Story Competition.

More by George Kowalik ›

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  1. One criticism George.
    Life, like Earth, should always be spelt with a capital L.
    There is only one Earth and each of us can only ‘inhabit’ one Life. Our own.

      1. So where is Life Giovanni?
        Granted, there are billions of forms of Life, but they are not the ineffable Life we sense and feel in our own bodies.
        Life, Love,Truth and Beauty are intrinsic and beyond description.
        We can acknowledge them but they cannot be owned.

          1. You can’t correct a writer based on your own personal views on spelling is what I’m trying to say here.

  2. Ahh, the minefield of grammar.
    Or is it semantics?
    It is an observation rather than a ‘view’
    As you no doubt know, words have power, although I prefer to say authority, rather than power.
    Power too, is intrinsic.
    All I am trying to point out, in my experience, is that Life, Love,Truth and Beauty are in the eye and heart of the beholder. Therefore, they can only be experienced by us alone. We cannot experience those things through the eyes or hearts of other Life forms.
    They are in a sense, solipsistic.
    Hence the capitals.

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