The Hidden Grace of Pixar’s Soul

The Hidden Grace of Pixar’s Soul

Ted TurnauBy Ted Turnau22 Minutes

You may have seen some of the talk going around about Pixar’s feature film, Soul. Maybe you’ve even seen it yourself and were left with questions. Those sheltering-in-place at our house watched it together. Toward the film’s end, my twenty-one-year-old daughter was so moved she wept. We’ll return to her later. Clearly, there’s something to this movie that deserves discussion.

First, let’s get two misconceptions out of the way:

  1. Soul isn’t a children’s movie. I would not recommend this movie for kids under 13. Not because the movie contains sex or violence; it doesn’t. Rather, its plot is complicated and likely to confuse younger viewers. As we’ll see, it’s a lot more involved than “Woody and the toys have to go on an adventure to rescue Buzz!” Further, the life questions it wrestles with simply don’t apply to younger kids. They apply to older teens and twentysomethings. Finally, there are scenes (with “lost souls”) toward the end of the movie that are dark and too intense for small children. Not everything on Disney+ is for children (e.g. The Mandalorian). This is one of those.
  2. Don’t be distracted by the details about how the afterlife (or before-life) is portrayed. Not that these concerns are unimportant, but the real challenge of the movie runs far deeper: What is the purpose of life? What makes life worth living?

The Story

To properly understand the challenge of Soul, we need to get the story straight. [Spoiler alert: I am going to include some spoilers, so go watch the film first. I’m skipping a lot of details. Also, you’ll miss the visual and musical texture of the film].

Soul opens with Joe Gardner in New York City. He’s a frustrated jazz pianist stuck teaching middle school band. Joe really wants to gig, to perform with the best. He gets his chance when a former student, now a big-time jazz drummer, tells him respected saxophonist Dorothea Williams needs a pianist.

He auditions, impresses, gets the spot, and goes home elated. Sharing the good news via cell phone while walking, he falls to his death (or at least, to a coma) through an open manhole. Finding his soul (a fuzzy blue essence-of-Joe) waiting in line for the “Great Beyond” (a shining ball of light), he tries to find a way back to earth. He stumbles into the “Great Before” where preexistent baby souls are given personalities. He poses as a “mentor,” a departed soul tasked with prepping these baby souls for life on earth. His task is to help the soul find its “spark” (never defined, but it’s hinted that it’s a life passion). Joe’s is, obviously, music. His mentee, a rebellious soul named 22, doesn’t want to go to earth. Nothing, nothing interests her; there is no spark. Besides, she likes it here.

Joe tells her if they find her spark, he’ll go in her place and she’ll get to stay where she’s comfortable. Moonwind, a New Age mystic, helps Joe return to earth, but 22 accidentally tags along. They end up in the wrong bodies: 22 in Joe’s (formerly) comatose body, and Joe in a therapy cat on his lap. They escape the hospital into a number of adventures (played for all sorts of “body swap” humor), trying to get to that evening’s gig with Dorothea. Along the way, 22 falls in love with having a body, experiencing everything like a child, for the first time—tasting a slice of pizza, hearing a subway musician through Joe’s ears, watching sunlight filtered through the leaves of a maple tree. And Joe has the experience of viewing all his relationships to people from an outsider’s perspective.

When Joe’s mother finds out that he’s chasing yet another gig, 22-in-Joe’s-body finally confronts her with Joe’s true feelings: “This isn’t about my career, mom. It’s my reason for living. I’m just afraid that if I died today, that my life would’ve amounted to nothing.”

They find Moonwind (he works in New York) and he promises to help them switch back outside the jazz club. But 22 doesn’t want to go back. She quite likes life in Joe’s body. She flees and in the chase, both she and Joe are caught and forced to return to the Great Before by a heavenly accountant who noticed that Joe went missing. There, 22 discovers that somewhere along the way, she found her spark, completing her “earth pass.” She can go to Earth. Joe insists that she only found her spark because she was in his body. He demands the earth pass. 22 sulkily throws it at him and storms off.

Joe returns to earth and arrives at the gig to find he’s been replaced. He demands a place on the band, saying it’ll be a mistake to pass him up: “My only purpose on earth is to play.” Dorothea allows it, and together, the band plays their hearts out to rapturous applause. But after, Joe feels let down; he thought it would change everything. Dorothea tells him a story about a fish searching for the ocean. An older fish tells him he’s already in it. The younger fish says, “This is water. What I want is the ocean.”

Joe goes home to think on the day’s events. He empties his pockets and finds all the things 22 stuffed in them, sets them on his piano, and uses them for inspiration to play. Joe finds himself crying out of sheer gratitude at life’s beauty, realizing how selfish and uncaring he was to 22. His playing leads him to the Zone, and he goes in search of 22. She has become a lost soul. Turns out, she didn’t want to go to earth because she feels unworthy, trapped in layer after layer of criticism from her past mentors, including Joe. Joe breaks through and tells her that the spark simply means she’s ready to live. He gives her the earth badge and resigns himself to the afterlife. But the heavenly counselors, inspired by his example, allow him to return to earth as well. He arrives back on earth, not sure what he’ll do. But that’s OK. He is content to be.

What Made My Daughter Cry? The Point (and Grace) of Soul

Let’s return to what made my twenty-one-year-old daughter weep, how Christians are missing the point, and why this isn’t really a children’s movie. I understand why Christians get nervous or annoyed when alternative visions of heaven are portrayed. It’s their (our) ultimate hope and destination, and we’d like movie-makers to get it right. However, that’s not the main point of the film. I’m pretty sure nobody at Pixar believes heaven is like that. Rather, it’s their imaginary scenario—“What if heaven were like this?”—to deliver a story about something else: the purpose of life. That’s what made my daughter sob uncontrollably.

She’s bright and driven, studying veterinary medicine at the hardest university in the Czech Republic, and trying to do it with dyslexia. It has been rough. And she’s dealt with depression, hearing the criticism and disapproving voices of her teachers in her head, layer upon layer of self-hatred. Seeing 22 as a lost soul, trapped by her own self-hatred resonated powerfully with her. She felt seen. She watched Joe striving for his dream and having it evaporate, leaving him bewildered. She felt seen. And then there’s the pressure. Caring for and healing animals is her life’s dream. If she fails at vet school—and there’s no guarantee that she’ll make it through all six years—will her life be worth anything? This movie, in its own way, released her from that pressure. “Don’t worry about that,” it said. “Just live.”

That’s why this film isn’t for young children. It’s for older teens and twentysomethings who are in a struggle trying to figure out what to do with their lives. That’s not kid territory; that’s midlife (or quarterlife) crisis territory. The film’s message comes through the voice of Dez, a barber Joe visits. Unlike Joe, 22-in-Joe’s-body actually shows an interest in other people’s lives. Dez tells 22-in-Joe’s-body about how he longed to be a veterinarian (some coincidence!), but his daughter’s illness put vet school out of reach financially. He chose barber school instead. When 22-in-Joe’s-body replies that he must be sad to have given up his dream, Dez says no. He has found happiness where he is.

Besides the visual poetry of the film, beyond the killer soundtrack, this is the message and truth and grace of the movie: Don’t get so hung up about finding your purpose that you miss the beauty of life where you are. As Dorothea hinted, this is the ocean. Enjoy it. And be grateful. That’s something Christians can and should celebrate: lay aside trying to find ultimate purpose in your career or life passion. We would call that a form of idolatry, trying to make some aspect of your life give you ultimate meaning. Soul says, “Don’t. Instead, rest in gratitude.”

But There’s a Catch

But there’s a catch: to whom are we grateful? For all the time the film spends in “heaven,” there are plenty of after or before-life workers, but God is absent. Why remove God from heaven?

A couple of reasons. First, how do you put God on film without offending everyone? Artistically, how do you portray the Source of all life and beauty? It’s easier not to. But second, including God would undermine the movie’s message: just be in the moment and enjoy the simple beauty of life. Find joy where you can until you die. Here’s the real challenge, because this is what a lot of Americans believe. Who needs God?

Christians insist that, no, there’s a reason we feel the urge to be grateful. God is not some weird add-on to the beauty of the world: he’s the One who made it this way because he loves us. The heavens and earth don’t just proclaim God’s glory (Psalm 19:1); they declare his affection for us, his loving provision for us (see Acts 14:15–17). All of this beauty and life is no accident. But God went yet further, giving us not just life on this beautiful earth; he gave his only Son as well to rescue us from being lost souls. Moreover, he invites us into relationship with him as his children. What’s life’s purpose? To love him, thank him, serve him, and rest in his grace. Whatever passion or skill we pursue, we do it as unto the Lord (Colossians 3:23). Make your pursuits a way to love him, thank him, serve him, and rest in his grace. That’s how you avoid turning them into idols. That’s where real hope and joy are found. That’s our song.

So . . . What’s Heaven Really Like?

What if you’re a parent with younger kids and you’ve already watched Soul with them? Your kids are likely a little confused. Are we simply blue fuzzy blobs? Do we get personalities assembled in the Great Before? Rather than being disturbed by the film’s take on heaven, let your kids know that it’s make-believe. The movie makers are playing a game of “let’s pretend” to tell a story. In adult terms, they are narrative devices, a way to move the story from point A to B.

The same applies to the New Age hippies portrayed in the film. Does meditation really bring us to a heavenly realm called “The Zone”? No, but having The Zone gives Joe a way to go back to rescue 22 from her own despair. The New Age beliefs aren’t really the point of the film. The portrayal of Moonwind is so over-the-top, he’s there mostly for laughs and to help Joe and 22.

Though be aware that the film does portray Eastern religious elements, most notably, the main theme of Zen: Simply live life, be in the moment. Those in The Zone are being in the moment while they do what they do. From a Zen perspective, it’s a type of meditation, a kind of heaven on earth.

And that brings us back to the film’s portrayal of heaven. There is an important sense in which the film gets our eternal hope both right and wrong. What it gets right is its focus on the beauty of life on earth. The Bible is clear: that is our final destination. Not disembodied souls sitting on clouds playing harps (you get some of that cloud imagery in Soul’s Great Before). Rather, we will have new glorified bodies on a new glorified earth. The stuff we find beautiful here we will regain (imagine tasting a glorified slice of New York pizza!). But this will be creation renewed, cleansed of sin, darkness, and pain. By focusing on life on earth, the film actually gives us a better picture of what our ultimate hope should be: not heaven “up there” but a renewed life right here.

What the film gets wrong about our final destination is that it makes heaven boring. The Great Beyond is visualized as a big, static, ball of white light into which souls are absorbed. You sympathize with Joe: we definitely do not want to go there. All the interesting stuff is happening on earth! This boredom has a lot to do with the absence of God that I mentioned above. Heaven without God is boring. The new earth will be fantastic and exciting not only because it’s a renewed creation, but because God will be there with us! That’s the culmination of the Book of Revelation, and the whole Bible, really: God comes at last to dwell with his people, the wedding supper of the Lamb. The God who loved us, gave his Son for us, sent his Spirit, created this beautiful world, saved us body and soul, who knows us inside and out and yet still calls us his children—we get to hang out with him forever! God is infinitely fascinating, beautiful, dynamic, exciting, worthy of worship. It never gets boring in his presence.

Put in that context, if Joe truly knew this God, do you think he’d turn tail because he had a shot at a gig with a highly respected saxophonist? Really? When he had the chance to play before God himself, to give a tiny bit back as a grateful child to his Father? You see, God’s not a weird add-on that distracts from living in the moment. He is the point of every moment, our hope, the One who makes life worth the living, both now and after we die.

Final Thoughts: Whatever Else You Do, Teach Gratitude

So, parents of small kids who’ve already seen the film: talk about heaven, what we know and what we don’t. The Bible doesn’t say anything about what goes on before we’re conceived (except that God’s planned our days ahead of time—Psalm 139:15–16). It has a lot to say about after we die, some of it hard to understand. But here’s what’s easy: we get to hang out with God forever. Even little kids can get that. And introduce them to the habit of gratitude whenever they see something that gives them joy. It’s not just a cool whirling maple seed—it’s a gift from God to his loved child. Good children say thank you for good gifts.

Parents of teens and young adults, talk about the point of living. They wrestle with purpose, with calling. Calm their fears. Pray. Have them talk to God about it. If they obsess on their calling, they could turn into “lost souls” with constant self-criticism echoing inside their heads. (Be aware that you might be one of those voices—be careful to encourage rather than discourage your kids—Colossians 3:21). Help them instead hear the voice of the Good Shepherd who doesn’t speak to us with a voice of criticism. Tell them to relax, that they’ll figure out their calling with God’s help and in his timing. And make their ultimate purpose crystal clear: to love him, thank him, serve him, and rest in his grace. Soul gives us a taste of that, but we know the bigger picture. Be thankful.

Photo Credit: Budiey / SOUL / CC BY-NC 2.0