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Soul •••

Greg Scott



(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, could this next movie be about the bottom of a shoe?

No, it’s the sole survivor of the Pixar movie machine. Let’s recap:

We meet Joe Gardner, a middle school music teacher in New York City. His band students are playing a song unenthusiastically and Joe appears frustrated. He believes his true calling is to perform and thrive in a successful jazz band. Out of the blue Joe gets a call from Curly, a former student, who tells him of an opening in a band called ‘The Quartet’. Joe auditions for the spot, performs amazingly well, and gets the job.

No sooner is he realizing his dream, when he falls into an open manhole (er, sewage access hole) and, sorta… dies. He finds himself in a sort of purgatory where he meets “22” – a “purpose assignment angel.” She endeavors to find Joe his purpose. Then, when the two are transported to Earth, they exchange bodies – Joe becomes a cat who is guiding “22” (now in Joe’s body) to get him to his audition. There are other angels in play – one who wants to recover Joe’s soul because Joe should be dead, but instead he’s wandering the earth looking for his purpose.

I have to give the writers and producers of Soul a lot of credit. They could not have possibly taken on a more ambitious goal in crafting a movie not only about our souls’ destination after death but also our souls’ very creation at the outset of life. Apparently our souls have some choice in this matter during our pre-incarnate state, and the good news is they get some mentoring. The goal for each of us is to acquire a “spark”, something that gives life its fullest zest.

Greg, there are some positives and negatives about this movie, although I will agree that the pluses outweigh the minuses. On the positive side, there is some incredible animation here, with some exterior scenes of sidewalks and trees looking more like sidewalks and trees than actual sidewalks and trees. The production value is mind-blowing. Also on the positive side is the ambitiousness of the story, which focuses on something no less than the meaning of life. But here is where the negatives emerge.

We’re introduced to the idea of a spark, which Joe misunderstands to mean one’s life purpose. In reality a spark is what instills us with an appreciation and zest for living, which is all well and good except that this movie contends that one cannot have both a purpose and a spark. For example, it’s made pretty clear that Joe has a remarkable gift for playing jazz piano, yet Joe somehow is convinced by the movie’s end that being a successful jazz pianist isn’t as satisfying as eating pizza and watching leaves fall to the ground.

Greg, what am I missing here? Why can’t Joe enjoy his time playing in The Quartet and enjoy pizza and leaves? It doesn’t have to be one or the other, does it? I believe that 22 teaches Joe a nice lesson that life isn’t all about one’s work and career, but I believe you can have a successful career and enjoy life’s simple pleasures, too.

I want to address your question, but first, I have to say I felt this film was all over the map. At first it seems like a remake of “Freaky Friday” with Joe and 22 living in each other’s bodies. Then it seems like “It’s a Wonderful Life” with Joe discovering how important he is to the people in his life (his mother, her friends, his students, the other musicians.) And then it looks like it’s going to transcend all of these films, only to die an unpurposeful death at the end.

The other elements of the film deal with an accounting angel who wants to pull Joe back from Earth and recycle his soul. This ghoul is tracking Joe’s soul (now inside a cat) and is trying to pull it back. This thread of the story goes nowhere slow. And then once the ghoulish ghost achieves his goal, “22” is lost in purgatory with no purpose and faces a number of demons that only Joe (as a disembodied soul) can save her from.

Ultimately, Joe does such a good job saving “22” that the other angels distract the accounting angel and give Joe a second chance back on Earth. Now, at this point you’d think the film would end with Joe going back to school and realizing that teaching and sharing his love of music would be his purpose. Or, he’d leave teaching and tour with a jazz quartet, finally realizing his purpose, or find some new thing that makes his life worth living.

But no, he steps out into the world with no particular purpose promising to live each day as it comes. Completely living in the moment, having no goals and no purpose. Which is about as lackluster an ending as I can imagine you might be able to create in a motion picture.

Scott, I have the same questions as you. Pixar is well known for the rigor it puts films through before they put pen to ink to paper. No movie gets a go ahead until it’s gone through several creative mind hives to pound out the essence of the film and ultimately it’s meaning.

But “Soul” seems to have been rushed out with neither “spark” nor “purpose.” It isn’t clear about its premise nor does it deliver an answer to that whatever premise it creates. In short – this is a confusing mess of a film that tries to merge multiple philosophies of life (including Zen Buddhism) without violating nor insulting other philosophies. In trying to satisfy everyone, I fear “Soul” has satisfied no one. There is an old saying that if you try to chase two rabbits, both escape. The goal and purpose of “Soul” both escape me.

Greg, I agree with you that the movie fails to deliver a simple, convincing message. Having said that, I was still dazzled by Soul’s characters and good focus on living life fully immersed in the present moment. The movie poster asks, What makes you YOU?  It appears to be gratitude, especially gratitude for the little things. And let’s not forget that gratitude keeps you in the present. So two spiritual practices are woven together here, presence and gratitude. Very nice.

So how to rate Soul? I enjoyed the film enough to give it 3 Reels out of 5 despite the confusions around its central message. There are enough good qualities, characters, and scenes to make this movie worth recommending. I enjoyed how 22’s innocence deepened Joe’s relationship with his mom, and with his Barber. The barber scene was especially good – we can be happy no matter what our profession is.

But I can’t give the movie more than 3 Reels because of its confusing message. The famed mythologist Joseph Campbell once said, “Follow Your Bliss,” which he took to mean that we should match our heartbeat to the rhythm of the universe. Joe Gardner does this when he plays Jazz music. So why can’t the movie end with Joe finally enjoying his success and bliss as a musician? Yes, a slice of pizza is good and leaves are beautiful. But so is playing gorgeous music that feeds our “souls”. This movie shouldn’t have downplayed Joe’s natural musical gifts.

Our hero Joe is indeed on a hero’s journey and undergoes a significant transformation. Joe’s a great character — likeable, sincere, talented, and most importantly, open to learning and to growth. He is certainly humbled and comes out on the other side a more enlightened person about life’s true meaning. I award Joe 4 Hero points out of 5.

I think you make another good point here, Scott, to which I’ll add. With the advent of cheaper and cheaper computer animation and special effects, animation houses can create films with very high-quality production values. With this ease of creation, it seems story is falling by the wayside.

In a world where audiences can get theater-quality movies and series at home, the differentiator between good and great films is going to be the quality of the story. I am constantly amazed at the lack of good storytelling coming out of Hollywood and other production houses. It’s as if all that matters is creating something good-looking, not something that at the minimum makes sense.

“Soul” is a soulless story with great production values. I can only muster 3 out of 5 Reels. And the hero’s journey is truncated by the fact that Joe achieves neither his goal nor his purpose – despite the fact that those are the premises this film offers. Ultimately, this is a poor representation of the Zen ideal of having no attachments and living in the moment. I can only give this hero 2 out of 5 Heroes.

Greg Scott

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