Disney’s Soul And The True Measure of a Life

Pixar’s Soul was my number one film of 2020, and not just for the exceptional animation, which blends abstract and surrealist style with some genuine attention to detail. To echo the words of Chicago film critic Josh Larsen, “when I watched Soul, I needed Soul.” After an extremely difficult year, Soul offered a timely message about the beauty to be found in a struggling world. A reminder that life is still worth living.

But there is a curious aspect of the conversation surrounding Soulthat has been troubling me. Certainly it has been widely embraced and largely praised by both audiences and critics alike, but for all of that embrace, what has been troubling me has been the seeming refusal of movie viewers to actually talk about the “soul”.This despite the fact that the film is literally called “Soul”. That it tells a story about the soul. This despite the fact that they spent countless hours researching the idea of the soul represented in different faith traditions. This despite the fact that Director Pete Docter is a commmited and still searching Christian who set out to make a film to deal with existential questions regarding the soul.

I’ve experienced Christians avoiding the subject matter because they think its bad theology. Safer to consider it a simple story or parable about our material existence.

I’ve heard atheists avoid it becuase it would be entertaining the film’s spiritual components. Better to keep it relegated to the real world.

And nearly everthing inbetween.

Which has left me, as a Christian, feeling somewhat frustrated and defeated. Here we have a film that is actually tackling the subject of the soul and no one wants to actually talk about the nature of the soul. Instead it feels like a deeeply spiritual film has been stripped of it soul and turned into a materialist, feel good mantra about living your best life. Ironically, I feel like this is actually the very message the film is looking to deconsustruc. As the Director suggests in his own words,

I think where we come to in the end (of the film) is existentialism,” Docter says of Soul’s own journey. “[Purpose] is not just meant to be localized over here and then the rest of my life happens. All of life is spiritual. Everything you do contributes to who you are as a person and to the overall meaning of your life.”

In other words, this disaassociating the soul from the body, or the spirit from the material, or this treating the body as fair game for discussion while limiting the soul to the outer reaches of a fantasy or parable is the kind of thinking that needs to be challenged, especially here in the West. This kind of dualism is damaging, especially when we consider how readily it is recognized that this film brings attention to and works to celebrate the black experience. To disconnect a concern for the spirit from social concern is a dangerous business.

“Those really aren’t purposes, 22. That’s just regular old living.”

“The truth is, I’ve always worried that there is someting wrong with me, like I’m not good enough for living.

Expectations, Jazz and the Story of a Life
The film follows the story of Joe Gardern, a middle school music teacher who struggles with what he sees as a lifeless job, one that stands in contrast to his true passion- being a professional jazz musician.

The offer to turn a term position into a full time job at the school brings to light the tension that exists at home between Joe and his mother regarding his career and his passion. His mother sees the full time job and financial security, while Joe sees what his mother refers to as “dead end” gigging. Underneath this is the face of his father, no longer alive in the physical sense but very much alive within Joe’s ambition to follow in his footsteps. As we find out later in the film, it was his father that first introduced him to jazz and inspired his own love of the form.

The ever growing tension emerges even more sharply when he is suddenly handed an opportunity to play for popular jazz musician Dorothy Williams. As he says, “I would die a happy man if I could perform with Dorothy Williams”, a statement that not only foreshadows what is about to happen to him as he subsequently falls down a manhole, distracted by visions of grandeur and ending up in a coma. But it also foreshadows his later confession where he admits to his mother, “I’m just afraid that if I died today, that my life would have amounted to nothing.”

After falling down the manhole, Joe finds himself on this grand and gradually ascending escelator in a strange dimensional world, initially alone but ultimately joined by a mutitude of others as they head towards a bright light above. He refers to this light as “death” itself, and later it is redifined as the Great Beyond. Not ready to die and feeling he is on the cusp of realizing a life long dream, Joe’s desperate attempts to flee the bright light eventually land him in a place called the “Great Before”.

The Great Before and Jewish Thought
The concept of the great before actually comes from an ancient Jewish tradition regarding the nature of the souls creation. As opposed to the idea that the soul predates creation, the Jewish idea sees the soul wrapped up in the creation of humanity, the very breath of God breathed into the physical body and giving it life. In Jewish thought, and equally so in Christian Tradition, soul and body are interconnected, much in the same way that heaven and earth are mutual expressions of the whole of the created order. A cosmological reality. And while heaven is an expression of God’s great vision for this cosmic creation, God’s very dwelling place being made known and being established here on earth, so a soul is the very real expression or manifestation of God’s very image being endowed within the person and giving them life. In this sense, neither body nor soul can live apart from the other but rather become fully alive in their mutuality.

As Rabia Simlai puts it,

“Just as the Holy One of Blessing fills the world, so does the soul [neshamah] fill the body. Just as the Holy One of Blessing sees but cannot be seen, so does the soul see but cannot be seen… Just as the Holy One of Blessing is pure, so is the soul pure”

Further to this he says,
“The midrash Tanhumah tells us that all souls were made during the six days of Creation. Before the birth of each person, God calls forward the proper soul and has angels show that soul how earthly existence benefits spirit by allowing for spiritual development.”

As the old story goes, once a soul is given a body, the angel taps it on the lip causing an indent, leading the baby to forget all that it had learned. Living then is meant for recovering all that has been lostin this movement from heaven to earth. The rediscovering of the truth of this world, of God and personhood.

Created Versus Given Knowledge
One of the things that really struck me about this film’s intentional delving into the nature of the soul is its emphasis on this kind of “given” knowledge. One of the problems with seeing Soul through a purely materialist point of perspective is that it essentially imprisons the films message within the idea of “created” knowledge, the very foundation of modern western approaches to progress and enlightenement.

Consider the story of 22, the new “soul’ that Joe gets paired with as a default mentor in the Great Before.

His job is to try and prepare him for life on earth. As the film suggests, again in a very Jewish sense, the great before has been rebranded as the “You Seminar”. This evokes that ancient idea of being taught all there is to know about God, the world and ourselves before being sent to earth to forget and thus to live. Once the young souls have a complete personality, only then they can go on to earth and begin living.

What emerges from Joe’s endeavor as a “mentor” is that the most allusive thing about this personality training is what they call a “spark”. Joe interprets the spark as that thing which gives life meaning and purpose, something he finds in his pursuit of becoming a jazz musician. This, he believes, is his spark. Encountering a montage of his life  in one of the seminar rooms, we as viewers are let in on his backstory. Life didn’t go the way he wanted, leaving him with a trail of rejections and failures that have left him feeling like he is worthless. Which is why this gig means so much to him. It means he is worth something, and thus getting 22 to complete his/her personality means a better chance of finding a way back to his own life on earth.

The Lessons of a Young Soul
As 22 says at one poing, “You can’t crush a soul here, that’s what life on earth is for.” 22 has chosen to skip life altogether, being fine with the mundanity of his/her existence in the great before. But Joe changes that for 22. “I’ve neer seen anything that’s made me want to live” he/she says. Then you came along. Your life is sad and pathetic and you’re working so hard to get back to it.” The curiousity of why this is leads 22 to want to stick with Joe in his efforts to return to earth, and together they find a way to get Joe back to earth where. Only Joe’s soul ends up in a cat while 22’s soul now occupies his body.

As they try to find a way to fix this mishap, what ends up unfolding is an often funny but also deeply revalatory journey. As 22 begins to engage with the art of living in this strange, overwhelming and completely foreign land, he/she begins to discover the true nature of this spark they have been learning about in the Great Before. At one point the question is asked, “is all this living really worth dying for?” We see this from 22’s still to be born perspective and Joe’s almost dead perspective. Where the initial sentiment finds 22 exclaiming “I can’t believe I’m in a body on this hellish planet”, this sentiment eventually leads to a revelation about life’s ultimate beauty.

“The truth is, I’ve always worried that there is someting wrong with me, like I’m not good enough for living. But then you showed me about purpose and passion… Maybe skywatching can be my spark. Or walking. I’m really good at walking.”

This emerges from 22’s growing awarness of the small things. This fresh perspective of a foreign world has awakened this sense of wonder in the seemingly mundane, things that no longer seem beautiful or wonderous to those of us conditioned to life’s harsher edges. We see this in his/her’s awareness of the little girls’ passion for jazz. We see it in the interest 22 pays to the barber’s life and story. We see this in experiencing things ike the smell and taste and emotions. We see this in the simple joy of a falling leaf that breaks into the monotony of their existence and pushes 22 to want to live.

These are all of the things that Joe has been failing to see in his own life causing him to respond to 22’s sentimental reactions by saying, “Those really aren’t purposes, 22. That’s just regular old living.” In other words, that’s not life. For Joe, this gig, this opportunity to be a real jazz musician is what defines him. That is his purpose. His spark. That is what life, or his life, is meant to be about.
The Interconnected Stories of our Lives
What’s so exceptional about the way the Director draws this out in the narrative is that he essentially binds these two stories together as an interconnnected journey. The lessons that 22 learns by “walking a mile” in Joe’s shoes become the same lessons that Joe needs to learn as his own life is given a greater awareness through the fresh perspective that 22 brings to his life. Seemingly mundane moments like drinking coffee, walking down the street, a falling leaf, this pocket full of seeming trash comes alive for Joe later on through this beautiful rendered montage that imbues them with meaning, meaning that affords these simple things context and perspective from 22’s eyes. By seeing life through the other’s eyes, both Joe and 22 discover what it means to live with the kind of meaning and purpose that the Great Before affords them. Life becomes the means by which they discover what they’ve learned in the seminar, giving it purpose and meaning in the context of their lives.

What Joe learns is that in his obsession over being a somebody in the jazz community, he has missed the beaut and meaning of life itself. Jazz is not the spark. The spark that infuses his world with wonder is  a matter of perspective, an idea that poetically moves us in the film from the earth and outwards to the heavens where we can see the earth and life in its fullness. And as he gazes back down on the earth, he discovers that he does not need to make his life meaningful, his life has been given meaning, beauty, worth. It’s his job to live into this truth. To discover it. This is the spark that can inspire his love for jazz, not the other way around. Becoming a professional jazz musician doesn’t make his life worthwhile, jazz is a beautiful expression and outpouring of the truth that he already has worth in light of the Divine.

Life and Jazz: Playing the Same Notes
In terms of the films larger motif, which uses jazz music to symbolize life, there is a good deal of power to be found in this idea that jazz can only function the way it does if it has a foundation. All the improvisation, all the creativity and personality and exploration that comes with “jazzing”, be it in life or in jazz, is free to express itself because it has its roots in this foundational structure, the thing that holds it together and gives it its shape. Getting lost in the music, being in the “zone”, is getting lost in the beauty of this process so that it can then reveal some of this beauty and meaning and purpose to us. We can allow this truth to find us and shape us as we participate in its creative force. As Joe insists at one point, “Music and life operate by very different rules.” What he comes to discover is that they actually operate by the very same rules, and this truth is what living and jazzing is all about.

“Just as the Holy One of Blessing fills the world, so does the soul [neshamah] fill the body. Just as the Holy One of Blessing sees but cannot be seen, so does the soul see but cannot be seen… Just as the Holy One of Blessing is pure, so is the soul pure”

The Mystics and the Mystery of God
I’ve heard some dismiss this film as superficial because it incoporates an element of meditative practice, the only place where we actually hear mention of a kind of religion (Eastern religions). This is described as the intersection between heaven and earth. These “mystics without borders” also help lost souls without a home rediscover their spark, indicating that the spark is easy to lose and that we need to reorient ourselves heavenword constantly in order to regain perspective.

If you are someone who sees this is a problematic idea because of your Christian faith, one thing I would say is that this idea of meditative practice is also very present with traditions like the Jewish and Catholic mystics. I would also say that one of the things that both the Jewish and Christian tradition push back on is the idea of the englightened or the glorified self, this idea that we gain the necessary knolwedge ourselves and create meaning for ourselves. This is actually more a Western, individualist and stridently humanist idea than it is a religious one. It has to do with differing worldviews. If you look carefully at Soul, it is telling a story that is very much concerned with the nature of “revealed” or given knowledge. It is about the coming together of heaven and earth as a fuller image of the good creation. It consistenly points us outside of ourselves and towards communion with God and others. And yes, the Director made a key decision not to speak God’s name directly. And the closest thing we get to God is this ambiguous reference to something (the Jerry’s) that we cannot see or comprehend or understand. Therefore it appears to us in a form that we can understand in order to communicate its truth to us. This idea is actually a very Jewish and Christian idea at its heart. God and the Divine is a mystery to be revealed and an idea to be uncovered, and we find this in the idea of God with us, in the images of God revealed to us.

Transformation and Longing For The New Creation

As well, underneath the idea of this revelation or this notion of enlightenment in the film is this intentional focus on transformation, not just of the person but of the community and the world. As well, Joe’s living leads to the willing sacrfice of himself for the sake of another, which is the means by which he is granted this kind of rebirth, this new life. Sacrifice is the one thing that has the power to conquer death, and we see this motif represented as an image of the divine nature. This becomes the means of renewal and restoration, a glimpse of what The Great Beyond is all about as it takes root in the here and now. A manifested beauty within the confines of relationship to one another.

One moment in the film that I also found kind of striking is when Joe first lands on this ascending escalator and discovers there are others there with him. A clearly older lady tells him as he looks upwards towards “death” that she has been waiting for this for a long, long time. That she anticipates the Great Beyond. Even seems to long for it. A materialist approach to this film would find in this statement a simple allusion to living life the fullest so that when we die, we die happy. Not only does this undercut the suffering that Joe is experiencing and his decision to sacrifice himself for 22 amidst his contending with a failed life, it immediately diminishes the Great Before as having any forming power in our lives. What informs Joe is this larger persepective of God, the world and himself. This becomes the measure of his growth.

Rabbi Benjamin Resnick I think says it best when he suggests,

“One of the movie’s central messages is that true personhood is rooted in the union of body and soul, that they are both indispensable ingredients of life’s confection. If Joe Gardner’s adventure with an unborn soul named “22” yields any concrete moral, it is that corporeality and spirituality are intimately bound up with one another. Each is incomplete, perhaps woefully so, without the other. And of the many ideas that Pixar gracefully bandies about in “Soul,” it is this one that strikes me as the most profoundly Jewish.”

Just as 22 finds purpose in feeding into the life of a young girl struggling to see herself as good enough to be a musician. Just as 22 finds meaning in the story of the Barber. In the same way Joe comes to discvoer that 22 is not “only loving this stuff because” he’s “in my body”, but rather 22 is discovering what it is that brings us together as people, a people created for something more than visions of material success. Gaining perspective grows our empathy for others, which allows us to find the beauty in the story of this grand creation outside of ourselves. “Get ready Joe Gardner, your life is about to start” is a phrase that has a two fold meaning in Soul. It represents his flawed vision of what it means to live, and it represents the revealed truth that he gains from 22’s own journey from feeling meaningless and worthless to being worthwhile and ready to live. But we cannot forget that this worth comes from outside of 22. This worth comes from the empathy and love and concern and investment of an other. It comes from that which the Great Before has endowed him/her with- God given personhood. Given meaning, not created meaning. This is what it means to be truly freed from the constraints of life’s expectations and our flawed visions of success and material longing. Free to discover the beauty of this created world.

As Rabbi Simlai says, “God makes Himself discoverable in small ways, called hashgacha pratit, or divine providence”, and this divine providience is made most aware through relationship, through awareness of the greater reality that exists all around us. This is why Rabbi Simlai goes on to say, speaking about hte covenant or the oath made with the new born as they begin their life on earth,

“You are righteous” – be in your own eyes like a wicked person [i.e. don’t become complacent because of other people’s praise of your good deeds – always be aware that there so much more that you can grow]. Be aware that the Holy One, Blessed Is He, is pure; and his Heavenly servants are pure, and the soul that He has placed in you is also pure. If, throughout your sojourn on earth, you guard it in purity, fine; but if not, I shall take it back from you.”
Is all this dying worth the living. When death holds agency over us, life becomes meaningless. When we become free to live, death becomes transformed into something more. The Director has been on the record saying the reason he chose to only show this by way of a bright light is to leave that something more to a mystery ready to be uncovered. The greater message is that this truth is already being made known and being revealed in our midst, on earth as it is in Heaven.

Is all this dying worth the living. When death holds agency over us, life becomes meaningless. When we become free to live, death becomes transformed into something more. The Director has been on the record saying the reason he chose to only show this by way of a bright light is to leave that something more to a mystery ready to be uncovered. The greater message is that this truth is already being made known and being revealed in our midst, on earth as it is in Heaven.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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