Pixar’s “Soul”: Profound Spiritual Wisdom from a Soulless Corporation

Isn’t it ironic that one of the most powerful businesses in the world, the Disney conglomerate, has ended up being one of our nation’s most effective spiritual teachers?

I mean, in Disney you have a typical heartless corporation that controls so much of our deceitful mainstream media and our superficial entertainment industry. Yet that very transnational firm has consistently produced popular art that calls viewers to introspection, identification with wildlife and nature, and to qualities of generosity, selflessness, and love.

I’m thinking of celebrated productions like “The Lion King,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and even “Bambi.” Arguably, such animated films issue more effective calls to spiritual values (especially to the young) than do most churches.

How that’s possible remains a mystery to me.  It’s probably because even Disney Productions discerns a deep hunger for meaning in audiences throughout the world. So, in its effort to enhance its bottom line, it acquires scripts authored by spiritually attuned writers. But that’s only a guess.

The Film

Nevertheless, that was probably the case with Disney’s latest issuance, “Soul” whose screenplay was written by Pete Docter, Mike Jones and Kemp Powers. It’s a charming, comedic yet penetrating probe into the meaning of life and death. Its depiction of the afterlife suggests characterization as a poor man’s version of Dante’s Divine Comedy. It has all the ingredients: a guided trip through the great beyond, a painful process of purgation, and finally arrival at peaceful beatitude.

(At this point, some might think it appropriate to give a “spoiler alert,” though that hardly seems necessary for a spiritually themed work like “Soul.” It’s not some cliffhanger. In any case, be forewarned.)

More specifically, as Disney’s first all-black production, “Soul” tells the story of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a frustrated middle school band teacher obsessed with jazz and landing his dream job of playing piano in a quartet headed by a diva saxophonist named Dorothea Williams.

Joe is himself an unappreciated musical genius as becomes evident every time his riffs transport him into the “Zone” of his prodigious brilliance. In his audition for the Williams quartet, the diva immediately recognizes Joe’s talent and hires him on the spot.

Joe is overjoyed. On his way home, he practically floats and dances down the streets of NYC. In his distracted oblivion he is narrowly missed by busses, cars, motorcycles and bikes. However, Joe himself doesn’t miss an open manhole, which swallows him up and apparently ends his life.

The next thing he knows, he’s is in the afterlife on his way towards the Bright Light invariably reported in the accounts of most near-death experiences (NDE). But possessed by his obsession with finally realizing his dream job, Joe refuses to die.

The Underworld

So, instead of escalating into the world of light, he’s returned to heaven’s underworld – a kind of limbo – a so-called “Youth Seminar” where unborn souls are prepared by the recently departed to enter into bodies on planet earth. There Joe is introduced to a rebellious unborn soul (Tina Fey) called #22 (seemingly because she was the 22nd soul ever created).

Despite its status as a truly “old soul,” #22 has remained unembodied for eons because she finds the prospect of life on earth boring. No mentor, no matter how prestigious – not Copernicus, Marie Antoinette, Abraham Lincoln, Karl Jung, George Orwell, Mother Theresa, or Muhammad Ali – has been able to successfully coax 22 to incarnate on the Milky Way’s “stinky rock,” where she knows that life is inevitably soul crushing.

Despite that history, Joe Gardner accepts the task of mentoring #22 in hopes that if successful, he might be allowed to return to earth and his dream gig. Joe is convinced that if he can help 22 find her passion – her Spark – then her fierce resistance to life on earth will dissolve.

So, acting like Dante’s Virgil, Joe leads 22 through the “Great Before.” She accompanies him as he reviews his own life and identifies jazz as the spark which had given his frustrated existence the modicum of meaning it’s had. From there the two travel through the Hall of Everything where Joe shows 22 her own life’s possibilities as a baker, fire fighter, artist, librarian, mathematician, gymnast, office worker, or astronaut. Not surprisingly, 22 remains unmoved.

However, it’s at this point that roles suddenly reverse as the unborn soul takes pity on Joe. He’s unlike any of her previous mentors, she says, because his life has been so sad and pathetic. Despite the fact that 22 can’t imagine why Joe wants so desperately to return to such pathos, she leads her mentor to the Zone – a state between the physical and spiritual – where he’s made to recall the times his music has induced a state of happiness and bliss.

From there, 22 takes Joe to the Realm of Lost Souls where she introduces him to “a guy I know” – a mad psychedelic captain, a self-described “mystic without borders.” Captain Moonwind (who doubles as a NYC sign spinner on the other side) helps lost souls find their way out of obsessions and anxieties that leave them disconnected from life. For instance, he once helped liberate a soulless hedge funder from his alienated labor. In the aftermath, the frustrated Wall Streeter completely trashes his obsessed, anxious and confining work environment while finally screaming “I’m alive! I’m alive!”

To the tune of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Moonwind ferries Joe and 22 across the Sea of Lost Souls. On the way, the captain tellingly instructs Joe that lost souls are not that different from those striving to live constantly in the Zone. In both cases, he warns, “When your joy becomes an obsession, you end up tragically disconnected from life.”

With the warning ringing in his ears, and after entering a deep state of meditation, Joe and 22 suddenly find themselves returned to earth – to the intensive care unit where Joe’s NDE began. He’s not dead after all. However, both Joe and 22 are surprised to find that they remain completely displaced. Joe’s personality is now located in the hospital’s therapy cat, Mr. Mittens. Meanwhile, 22 finds itself animating Joe’s just-revived body.

Desperate and confused, the two narrowly escape from intensive care and emerge onto NYC’s noisy, smelly and dirty streets. It’s in this Purgatorio that Joe resumes his role as 22’s Virgil. Trapped in the cat’s body, he is intent on leading his newly ensouled form to what he imagines as heaven – the Half Note Jazz Club where his platonic Beatrice (Dorothea Williams) awaits him impatiently.     

Purgatorio

On the way, 22 learns more about inhabiting Joe’s body. For the first time, she discovers the soul-purging joys of pizza; of simply walking, sky watching, taking a shower, tasting toothpaste, and of fitting into a comfortable old brown suit. She recognizes a kindred spirit in 12-year-old Connie, Joe’s gifted middle school trombonist who finds school stultifying.  When Connie expresses her boredom with school, 22 approvingly quotes her former mentor, George Orwell, “State-sponsored education is like the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket.”

22 even revels in subway rudeness and in the talent of an underground street musician. Above all, 22 likes “jazzing” – spontaneous self-expression or any kind. 

Now Mr. Mittens is the one to object. “No,” he insists, jazz is a completely other category. “Music and life,” he says, “operate by very different rules.”

Undeterred, 22 continues jazzing during a visit to Joe’s neighborhood barbershop. There, with Mr. Mittens sitting in her lap, Dez the barber reveals the possibility of finding joy in a second-choice career even when one’s first choice has been frustrated. Despite his genius at cutting hair, Dez explains that he originally wanted to become a vet. However, since barber school was less expensive than training for veterinary medicine, Dez chose the former. But it’s made him “happy as a clam.”

The lesson is not lost on Mr. Mittens. His wide eyes tell that he’s thoughtfully considering his own life in the light of Dez’s revelation. Meanwhile he listens incredulously as 22 philosophizes free form while Dez cuts the hair on the head she’s now thinking with.

Everyone’s enthralled as she pontificates about “existing as a theoretical construct in a hypothetical waystation between life and death. . .  left wondering whether all this (obsessed and over-focused) living was really worth dying for.”

Then she responds smartly to Paul, a hip barbershop customer, who rips Joe for falling short of his dreams. 22 fires back, “He’s just criticizing me to make up for the pain of his own failed dreams.” Her barbershop audience laughs at Paul derisively.

Later, 22 ecstatically explains to Joe: Didn’t you see? “I was jazzing.”  

22’s jazzing continues through the next stage of Joe’s purgatory – an encounter with his mother who has constantly urged her son to abandon his musical ambitions in favor of steady employment with pension and health care.

Still encased in Joe’s body and tentatively coached by Mr. Mittens, 22 boldly responds on Joe’s behalf, “Mom, I’m just afraid that if I died today, then my life would have amounted to nothing.”

That particular jazz riff opens Mrs. Gardner’s heart. In tears, she embraces her son and tells him how proud she is of him. She adds that his deceased father would have been proud too. She even gives Joe his dad’s handsome wool suit to wear at the anticipated performance that evening.  (Joe’s father too had been a musician dependent for support on his wife’s real job as a seamstress. No wonder she was worried about Joe.)

Paradiso

Finally, Joe arrives at the Half Note Jazz Club. By now, with the help of Captain Moonwind and a brief return to the Great Before, the difference between Joe and 22 has been completely overcome. Joe’s come to realize that 22 is the same as his own unappropriated unborn soul.

Whole at last, Joe is now ready for his beatific vision. Imagining that it will happen on the Half-Note’s stage, Joe persuades Dorothea Williams to rehire him despite his late arrival at the jazz club.  Reluctantly, she acquiesces.

However, all doubts vanish as Joe gives the performance of his life thrilling everyone present including his mother and Ms. Williams herself. Amid the applause, Joe’s mother is heard shouting proudly, “That’s my son!”

Nonetheless in the aftermath, Joe remains strangely detached. In effect, he wonders aloud, “Is that all there is? I’ve been waiting for this my entire life. I thought it would be different.”

The diva explains, “You’ve been like a fish discontent with his water habitat because he’s been searching for the ocean. You’ve had what you’ve been looking for all your life. It’s what you live in, move in and where you have your being.”

With that, Joe’s penny finally drops. Now his life flashes before him summarized in the symbolic trinkets that awakened the soul of # 22:

  • A Metro pass
  • A pizza crust
  • A piece of a bagel whose other half had been thrown into the tip basket of that subway musician
  • The lollypop Dez the barber shared during the session in his “magic chair”
  • A spool of blue thread that Joe’s mother used to refashion his father’s wool suit
  • A seed from a maple tree brought by a gentle breeze into Joe’s waiting hand

Yes, Dorothea’s version of Beatrice was right: Joe’s had everything he’s needed right from the beginning – in his father’s sharing his passion for jazz, in fireworks over New York City, in the heat blowing from city street grates, in the taste of pecan pie, in the star filled sky . . .

So have we all.

Conclusion

Such “morals of the story” might strike some as typically Hollywood – trite truisms generated algorithmically by pretentious but ultimately soulless corporations interested only in easy pandering to the peasant gallery. However, conclusions of this sort overlook the fact that most preaching and motivational talks contain similar messages. Fact is: we need the reminders.

Nonetheless, the morals of “Soul” go far beyond what’s already been itemized. A more comprehensive catalog might include the following.

  • Life on planet earth need not be boring or meaningless.
  • Death is not our enemy, but a portal to profound insight and expanded awareness.
  • Animals from which we evolved (symbolized in Mr. Mittens) continue to guide us.
  • So do previous human incarnations (like 22’s George Orwell and Muhammed Ali) who somehow persist as our mentor guardian angels.
  • When our joys become obsessive, they disconnect us from life’s richness.
  • Even our “dream jobs” are comparatively insignificant – carried out in the equivalent of a small basement jazz club.
  • The same holds true for the heroes we idolize (like the self-important diva Dorothea Williams).
  • In the light of impending death, (if we’re lucky) consciousness of such relativity eventually dawns as we realize that wish fulfillment isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
  • Instead, life is about overcoming separations – male from female, black from white, animal from human, body from soul.
  • It’s important “to jazz” and free flow at every opportunity; music and life both operate by the same rules.

These insights merit not only superficial review, but serious meditation by those whose spiritual hunger evokes them from sensitive writers like Docter, Jones and Powers despite their employment by Disney.

Do yourself a favor and see Pixar’s “Soul.” It will set you on the path of Dante, Virgil, Beatrice — and Joe Gardner.

Published by

Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

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