What Makes Life Meaningful? Reflections on Disney’s “Soul”
What makes life meaningful? What is worth doing during our time on this earth? How do our talents relate to our identity?
As a young, recently-graduated-from-college adult, I’ve spent a lot of time asking questions like these. The transition period between adolescence and adulthood seems like a fitting season for such existential ponderings. When the animated Disney/Pixar film Soul came out last year, I was surprised to find the children’s movie dealing with weighty concepts like the afterlife and asking questions similar to my own.
Soul’s protagonist Joe Gardner is a middle school band teacher with a passion for playing jazz music. In the first few minutes of the movie, this passion makes him reluctant to accept a full-time teaching position. He has aspirations beyond middle school band. That very afternoon, he receives the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to play with legendary musician Dorothea Williams. On his way to prepare for the show that evening, Joe falls abruptly through an open manhole and dies. (This happens nine minutes into the movie, so it doesn’t count as a spoiler!)
Joe’s soul falls onto an escalator headed upward into the Great Beyond. Unlike the other fuzzy blue souls around him, Joe very much does not want to continue into the light. In his efforts to escape whatever lies Beyond, Joe winds up in the Great Before, where childlike souls are prepared to be sent down into earthly lives. Each soul must complete their individual personality before being born. They receive many traits at the seemingly random instruction of Jerry, a caretaker comprised of “all quantized fields of the universe.” After some confusion, Joe is assigned as a mentor to an unborn soul. Mentors help their souls find “the Spark” to complete their personality and earn their pass to Earth.
Joe, of course, plans to take the Earth pass for himself in order to make it back to his life in time for the show.
Since the souls haven’t lived an earthly life yet, they are numbered rather than named. Joe’s mentee is Soul #22, who has been mentored for centuries with no success in finding her Spark. 22 has given up interest in life on Earth, but is entertained by Joe’s plight enough to play along. Before long, both Joe and 22 are back on Earth – with 22’s soul in Joe’s body, and Joe’s soul in a cat. Inspirational hijinks ensue in their attempts to set things right in time for Joe’s show.
A Reason for Living
From a cinematic standpoint, the animation of the movie is high quality throughout. The stark, linear style of the Great Beyond contrasts with the cool, soft Great Before, while scenes on Earth contain greater richness and detail. (The difference is most noticeable when Terry, the Great Beyond accountant, visits New York and keeps his linear style while traveling around.) Soul’s weight is carried more by its thematic content than its animation quality, and the emphasis on details during significant scenes serves to support certain themes. For example, as 22 begins to experience the small moments that make life meaningful, the movie slows down to focus on the details of a haircut or the leaves falling on a quiet street.
“Maybe sky-watching can be my Spark. Or walking!”
“Those really aren’t purposes, 22. That’s just regular old living.”
While 22 is able to find inspiration in the monotonous moments of life, Joe is slower to learn the lesson Soul is trying to teach. He is motivated solely to get back on track so that he can pursue his passion. Music is his “reason for living,” the only thing he thinks or talks about. He is so wrapped up in his own gifting that he can be blind to the people around him.
He’s surprised to get to know his barber when, for once, he doesn’t talk about jazz.
It becomes clear that Joe is motivated to pursue his passion because he believes it will somehow free him from the hardship and monotony of “regular old living.” When he finally gets his big break and joins Dorothea’s band, Joe is eager to find out what comes next. Dorothea simply tells him “We come back tomorrow night and do it all again.” Even with this avenue to pursue his passion, Joe runs into a new kind of monotony. He begins to understand, as he later tells 22, “Your Spark isn’t your purpose. That last box fills in when you’re ready to come live.” Though passions and talents shape the direction a life might take, they are not the purpose or reason for living in and of themselves.
Good, True, and Beautiful
Soul finds the reason for living in a willingness to embrace monotony (implicitly coupled with the pursuit of one’s passion). Even in this secular formula for a full life, there are hints of the Good, Beautiful, and True message of God’s word.
In showing Joe’s care for his band students and his appreciative attention to his barber, Soul sets itself up to illustrate how living a good life requires looking outside of ourselves. In my opinion, the movie fails to fully drive this point home; however, it could easily segue into a lesson on Philippians 2:3-4:
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.”
So Scripture prescribes a prioritization of others, and Soul prescribes an appreciation of life’s insignificant moments. Both prescriptions can direct our attention to the beauty of creation and, by extent, our Creator. From falling leaves along a quiet road to the imago Dei in the person in front of us, our daily lives are bursting with reasons to worship God.
Soul #22’s idea that walking could be her purpose may not be such a bad idea, if the practice of walking leads to God being glorified.
Finally, although the fictional movie Soul is not trying to teach anyone theology, it still points toward a deeper truth. As followers of Christ, we do not need to seek out a unique purpose or passion in order to live a life of meaning for the kingdom of God. The Church, as the body of Christ, consists of many parts with a variety of gifts—but the entire body shares the same calling (Romans 12:3-8). In the words of 1 Peter 4,
“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.”
For more from Nathan, see ndstorms.com.