Though originally intended for theatrical release, Disney/Pixar’s Soul was released on Disney+ on Christmas last year given the present pandemic. Christians may rightly already be skeptical just by virtue of the film’s title and its dealing with souls. Weird metaphysics are to be expected, but there’s also a skewed sense of justice that’s worth examining and some implications for the present pop culture woke war.
Wikipedia’s synopsis will suffice. I really did try to write my own, but you might have become a lost, wandering ethereal soul, and we avoid those kinds of things at TAU.
Joe Gardner, a middle school music teacher from New York City, dreams of a career in jazz, even though his mother Libba objects to it, fearing for his financial security. One day, Joe learns of an opening in the band of jazz legend Dorothea Williams and auditions for it. Impressed with Joe’s piano playing, Dorothea offers him a chance to perform later that night. As Joe happily heads off to prepare for the show, he falls down a manhole.
Joe finds himself as a soul heading into the “Great Beyond.” Unwilling to die before his big break, he tries to escape but ends up in the “Great Before,” where soul counselors—all named Jerry—prepare unborn souls for life. Each soul has a badge which, once filled out with traits, grants passage to Earth. Mistaken for an instructor, Joe is assigned to train 22, a cynical soul who has remained in the Great Before for millennia and sees no point in living on Earth. She needs to find her “spark” to complete her badge and agrees to give it to Joe so that he can return home. Joe tries to assist 22 in finding a passion, but the attempts prove futile. With no other options, they head for “the zone”, an area people enter when their passion sets them into a euphoric trance; it also houses the lost souls who become obsessed and broken. Moonwind, the captain of a psychedelic galleon bearing a troupe of “mystics without borders,” helps rescue the lost souls. The mystics agree to help Joe, who has been in a coma since his fall.
Joe excitedly hops back to Earth but accidentally brings 22 along, resulting in 22 entering his body and Joe ending up in a therapy cat. Initially frightened, 22 settles into Joe’s body and finds great enjoyment in the little things in life. She holds deep and poignant conversations with Connie, a student who planned to quit the school band but who changes her mind after losing herself in a passionate, impromptu trombone solo; Dez, who wanted to become a veterinarian but is now enjoying his career as a barber; and Libba, who reconciles with Joe and finally accepts her son’s passion for music. Meanwhile, Terry, an accountant designated to counting souls headed to the Great Beyond, goes to Earth to look for the missing Joe.
Joe and 22 find Moonwind (at his day-job as a sign twirler) to help restore Joe to his body, but 22 experiences an epiphany and decides she must find her purpose on Earth. She flees with Joe tailing behind, but Terry catches up and brings both back to the Great Before. 22 realizes that her badge has been filled out, yet Joe insists that it was the result of his experiences and tastes. 22 angrily tosses the badge at him and disappears into the zone. Joe later learns that instead of a life’s purpose, a spark simply means that a soul is ready to live.
Joe heads back to Earth and has a successful performance with the Dorothea Quartet. The experience, however, is not as fulfilling as Joe expected; worse, he might have to repeat the same routine night after night. Realizing his senseless and selfish ways with 22, he decides to return the badge. Inspired by the objects she collected while in his body, Joe plays the piano to enter the zone and look for 22, who has become a lost soul. Using a small maple seed 22 had kept, Joe convinces her that she is ready to live, returning her to normal. With her badge back, 22 finally enters Earth, with Joe accompanying her for as long as he can.
As he prepares to head into the Great Beyond, Joe is stopped by a Jerry, who thanks him for inspiring them and offers him another chance at life. Joe accepts and returns to his body on Earth, now ready to live and appreciate every moment of his life.
Cosmic, Eclectic Metaphysics
It doesn’t take a scholar to figure out very quickly that a Biblical worldview is not the order of Soul even in allegory. Of course, this depiction isn’t the worldview of any one particular person but rather a mash-up of many. The dialogue makes clear that the Great Before is neither heaven nor “H-E-double hockey sticks.” The concept of disembodied souls with personalities actively choosing to be born, however, is apparently a Mormon concept. “Mystics without borders” and “the zone” are obviously nods to Eastern philosophy. There is no intelligent creator God or any kind of capital-‘G’ God but a group of “Jerrys” who administer the Great Before and Terry the pompous, precise cosmic accountant. One blogger poignantly concludes, “Clearly, one of the messages of Soul is religious syncretism, a synthesis of all religions and beliefs.” Some of the details here are unexpected, but the general syncretism certainly is not. This is where a typical parental content review might tend to focus (“I don’t want my kids to think that”), but I think we should go deeper.
With apologies to Ekemini Uwan, neither blackness nor whiteness is wicked. But you might not know that from some of the criticisms levied against Soul.
Samuel Lively, whose book on Disney and the culture war I reviewed here, opines, “Soul, despite its spiritual and moral hollowness, stands apart from modern corporate Hollywood by depicting American black life through a pre-woke lens. This is notable because Soul is unquestionably a part of a corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion campaign that hit Pixar around 2011, the same time it got everyone else.” This whole thread from Lively is worth a read.
Christ & Pop Culture, which generally gushes at works of pop culture in a similar fashion as TGC, calls Soul, “incredibly authentic and culturally Black, yet universally applicable.” But even C&PC author Timothy Thomas isn’t completely gushy here.
For all there is to gush [emphasis mine] about Soul some have very poignant critiques of the film. Some feel Joe Gardner is a token Black for Pixar since he is the first Black lead character. Others question why an assumed white woman (22) gets to control Joe’s body, while Joe is relegated to an animal (a cat) for most of the film. These critiques of minstrelsy tropes, tokenism, and more like them, are valid and should be paid attention to for any future movies starring Black lead roles. However, for whatever imperfections there are, the purpose of the film ought not to be dismissed in its entirety.
This is the part where I defend Soul because this critique is completely invalid. Early in the film, 22 explains to Joe that she can take on any voice she wants, but she chooses to take on the voice of a white woman (Tina Fey) because it’s annoying. Formerly innocuous racial humor aside, the same C&PC article points out the cultural importance of the black barbershop. During 22’s journey in Joe’s body, three primary conversations speak into her life, informing her honestly about how life is a worthwhile struggle. Connie, an Asian student in Joe’s class, wants to quit trombone out of frustration with life but changes her mind by the end of the conversation. Dez, a Navy veteran and black barber, wanted to be a veterinarian and had to give up on that dream to take care of his ailing daughter, but he’s still “happy as a clam” and makes the most out of life by serving others through his occupation. Libba, Joe’s mother, speaks concerning Joe’s father’s struggle to get by under the adverse economic conditions of Queens and urges him to take the full-time job at the middle school. Two out of these three make no sense if 22, otherwise a non-ethnic disembodied soul, don’t make any sense if 22 is already “black.” And if Joe is merely a “token Black” as C&PC alleges, then why are all of the black characters unique from each other?
I’ll even defend Soul further from a non-woke angle along the same lines as Lively. 22 is certainly hapless in the sense that she’s living life on Earth in a body for the first time, but there’s no sense at all that 22 is a hapless white person who is incapable of receiving and understanding the black experience, is guilty for the black experience, or that the black experience is at all the fault of any white person. It’s just not there.
And to be completely personal about it, I am Dez. I’m not a black barber with huge, tattooed forearms, but I am a Navy veteran who had very different plans than driving 18-wheelers and blogging. I like Dez quite a lot. Be like Dez. We might not have Dez for long with the current woke direction of pop culture.
Sin and Consequences
The concerning aspect of Soul‘s metaphysics and culture treatment for me is not the expected syncretism and certainly not its respectful treatment of black culture or its spectacular jazz music score.
The scene where Terry catches up with Joe and 22 truly sums this up. 22 (in Joe’s body) is fleeing from Joe (in the cat’s body) after 22 realizes that she now wants to live and has to find her spark. As they’re running through a subway station, Terry opens a portal in front of them, and both 22 and Joe fall right in. Their souls leave their respective bodies, and Terry brings them back to the Great Before. Immediately, Joe and 22 begin to argue. 22 was about to find her spark and lost it because of Joe. Joe lost all that mattered to him — a shot to play with Dorothea Williams — because of 22. Terry intervenes and issues the truth:
Joe cheated…if the universe is ruled justly, if he truly deserved to die in the first place (rather than just having an unfortunate encounter with a manhole), and if there is some inherent wrong in wanting to live again. The clear wrongs he commits in the view of the story are two-fold. One, Joe should have relented when 22 finally wanted to live. Two, Joe was mistaken about what the “spark” is: it’s the will to live life to the fullest, not a particular passion like jazz music.
This image might best sum up the metaphysical dynamic of Soul. The tall, single-lined beings are the Jerrys. They are positive, bubbly, whimsical, compassionate, and inspirational. The short, angry one-lined being is Terry. Terry is mathematics, justice, law, and order.
At the very end, Joe finds himself back on the cosmic conveyor belt heading to the Great Beyond. This time he feels ready to go, but Jerry approaches and tells Joe that the Jerrys felt inspired by Joe and wanted to offer him a second chance. But what about Terry? Can justice and compassion be reconciled? Easy. (Another) Jerry snuck up behind Terry, and:
“Hey Terry, what’s that over there, look immediately!”
“What are you talking about?”
[Jerry covertly moves an abacus bead while Terry is looking away]
In the world of Soul, justice is a pedantic little dogmatist who can be deceived when it’s convenient.
Soul is a musically and visually engaging, yet metaphysically shallow representative of the secular climate that awaits when children from Christian households go adrift. It likely will not be a particularly important film when we look back twenty years from now, but it’s a good reminder of our responsibility to preach the gospel and the law from which it saves.
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