Movie Review: Soul

In Articles, Culture, Music & Movies by Steven Sukkau

With an uncharacteristically ambiguous ending, Disney’s Pixar digs into deeper questions about what it means to be human with another colorful, thoughtful film, Soul.

Pixar Comes Close

There’s a lot to take in here, both as a viewer and a Christian. Soul is a gorgeous film, beautifully animated and featuring a smashing soundtrack. While it’s fascinating to see Pixar create a story about emotions and the human brain in a film like Inside Out, it’s a bit uncomfortable to see the filmmakers tackle life after death.

While there’s some tongue-in-cheek references to heaven and hell, the film mostly depicts a banal in-between spiritual plane filled with familiar Sunday School imagery of a heaven-like realm in the clouds: calm, dutiful spiritual beings that act as angelic guardians, even brooding “lost souls” that represent people who’ve lost sight of their purpose on earth.

The movie certainly muses on the importance of living well and embracing the smaller moments in life, but it may take some extra explanation for younger viewers. We are not accidental beings taking in the sights on earth just to enter the next life if we remembered to stop and smell the roses. In fact, we are precious children of God created to do good works; good works he prepared for us beforehand.

Soul is another artful film with an uplifting message and theme, but one that fails to point to the source of goodness and life. We are works of art being formed by God’s hands. As Romans 12 reveals, the big moments and mundane are gifts we offer to our Creator, and he brings meaning and purpose to them all as he leads, prepares and enables us. Pixar comes close with their latest offering, but without a Creator, their depiction of the afterlife ends up feeling a little hollow.

Soul is another artful film with an uplifting message and theme, but one that fails to point to the source of goodness and life.

Soul follows the life and near-death of middle-aged band teacher and jazz musician Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) as he struggles to reconcile his big dreams with the soul-crushing nature of everyday life. We see him as a passionate artist dedicated to his craft, evidenced by his commitment to sporadic gigs that could lead to a big break. But he is chained to the somewhat demeaning, if greatly impactful, day job as a middle school band teacher.

In his parents, we see the tension between living our dreams and making concessions to survive; Joe’s father was also a soulful, aspiring musician, while his mother’s no-nonsense approach to the practicalities of life, along with her work ethic, kept their family fed and clothed when music wasn’t paying the bills.

However, despite his reluctance, we see hints that Joe is actually a gifted educator as he inspires the young people around him. One, in particular, has even gone on to work professionally as a musician and gets Joe a shot at his dream, recommending him to the legendary jazz artist Dorothea Williams.

His entire life’s purpose seemingly comes together as he kills the audition and runs home to prepare for his first concert in the big leagues. His dream comes crashing down, literally, when he falls into an open manhole and ends up as a cute and colourful representation of his soul in the Great Beyond. Unable to accept his fate, he resists entering eternity and flees to another space the movie affectionately refers to as the Great Before, a fluffy cloud playground where souls have their personalities and passions shaped before being sent to earth.

Part of a soul’s formation is being paired up with a mentor who has lived and died. In a bid to return to earth, Joe hatches a plan to mentor a resistant soul known only by a number, “22” (Tina Fey) who is content on never leaving her spiritual incubator.

Everything goes wildly off the rails, as you might expect, but Joe does eventually succeed in returning to his body and nailing his concert, thus fulfilling his supposed life’s purpose. However, afterwards, he tells his idol, Dorothea Williams that he imagined he would’ve felt “different”.

She tells Joe the story of a young fish looking for the Ocean. An older, wiser fish explains they’ve already arrived, but the young fish replies, “But this is only water.”

Joe begins to realize that life is made up of big moments, but also smaller moments. The true danger and stakes of the story, and life, are actually transforming your passion from a selfless gift into a selfish obsession.

In fact, it’s Joe’s gift as an educator and ability to reach difficult youth that saves 22 from her fear of inadequacy and prepares her to start her life on earth.

Along the way, Joe learns to both embrace the Great Beyond and appreciate the small moments in life. It’s here that the filmmakers specifically chose to end on an ambiguous beat. Joe is granted the chance to return to earth, but we aren’t privy to whether he tours full-time, goes back to teaching band, or is reunited with 22.

Content in the Tension

In the end, the filmmakers perhaps rightly decided that those details aren’t important. In fact, that’s the point. Regardless of what life had in store for Joe, whether he pursued a love interest, or embarked on a hybrid schedule of part-time teaching and performing, he was now mature enough to appreciate the big moments, as well as the small moments.

I think that’s the beauty of Soul. Its message isn’t a binary recommendation of either blindly pursuing passion or settling for smaller dreams; life is big and beautiful inside the tension between them. In fact, that is where the texture and colour of life happen – in the dreaming and longing, the working and resting. To be content in that tension, and remain grateful for each moment, is the lesson every soul must learn.

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. Romans 12:1-2 MESSAGE

Steven Sukkau
Steven Sukkau is a writer, journalist and radio broadcaster living on the Canadian prairies with his wife, two daughters and hyperactive terrier.
Steven Sukkau
Steven Sukkau is a writer, journalist and radio broadcaster living on the Canadian prairies with his wife, two daughters and hyperactive terrier.