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Disney/Pixar’s ‘Soul’ soars, but misses the mark theologically

DISNEY PIXAR SOUL

Disney Pixar

Paul Asay - published on 12/25/20

The movie, which releases on Christmas Day, is an artistic and emotional triumph, but loses its way in addressing religious issues.

The Disney/Pixar movie Soul lands on Disney+ on Christmas Day. And according to Director Pete Docter, the timing couldn’t be better.

“When we started [this process] five years ago, the world was a different place,” Docter said during a recent roundtable interview, of which Aleteia was a part. “But a lot of the things that we’re investigating—basically, why are we waking up in the morning, what are we doing with our time—those, I think are things that we’re maybe asking ourselves more than we do in normal times.”

These are not normal times, of course. Ever since the coronavirus upended normality last spring, most of us have been in something of a holding pattern: We’re working from home. We’re cutting down our social calendars. Sometimes, it can feel like we’re waiting for life to begin. And in a way, that’s just what Soul’s two main characters are waiting for, too.

Soul centers on Joe Gardener, a jazz musician who pays the bills as a middle school music teacher. The story opens with Joe getting his “big break,” a chance to play with the famous jazz musician Dorthea Williams. But on the way back from his audition, Joe falls straight through an open manhole. Next thing he knows, he’s heading, via conveyor belt, to the Great Beyond.

But Joe’s not ready. “I’m not going to die the very day I got my shot!” he says. So he somehow escapes and finds himself in what the movie calls the Great Before—where unborn souls are kept and tutored (by souls of some dearly departed volunteers) before being paired with an actual, physical body. Joe’s mistaken as a tutor, and he’s quickly given soul No. 22 as his pupil. But 22 has no real desire to be born. She likes it just fine in the Great Before. Why live life when things are so comfy and cozy where she is?

It’s a fascinating setup, well in keeping with Pixar’s ambitious filmmaking. Docter’s previous films are among the studio’s most thoughtful. Up, released in 2009, is a powerful rumination on grief and moving on. Inside Out, from 2015, is no less than an unpacking of the human psyche itself, what with its examination of memory and emotion. And few moviemakers have addressed such difficult issues with such emotional power. Look at Docter’s three Pixar directorial efforts (including 2001’s Monsters, Inc.) on the review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes, and you’ll find that they have a combined “freshness” rating of more than 97%.

Soul may be Docter’s most audacious film yet. And artistically and emotionally, it absolutely works. Featuring the voice talents of Jamie Foxx (Joe) and Tina Fey (22), the film is funny, poignant and deep. Once again, Docter’s figured out a way to make kids laugh and grownups cry. And Soul may trigger some soul-searching, too.

But Pixar also dipped its toes into inherently murky theological waters. And for viewers and families cautious about such issues, Soul is worth a caveat or two.

Docter says that he and his team did some extensive research before making the film, talking with faith experts and exploring how religious cultures throughout history have thought about the soul.

The movie’s “Great Before” might reflect many a religion’s thought on pre-existence, but it’s not in keeping with orthodox Christianity. When early Christian theologian Origen suggested that the soul pre-exists before conception, the idea was struck down as heresy by the Second Council of Constantinople in 533.

And Soul’s own quasi-heavenly planes differ from what traditional Christian doctrine would hold, too. For instance, the soul 22 is tutored by both Mother Teresa and Gandhi.

Soul’s purpose, though, is far more about how to live in this life than speculating about the here-before or hereafter.

“I actually feel like it’s maybe more of a philosophical film than a theological one,” Docter says. “We start with the essentialism—the idea that ‘I was born to do this,’ you know, sort of straight out of Aristotle or Plato. And then we get to counter that with, to me, the humor of 22 … the sort of ultimate meaningless of it all. And I think where we come to in the end is existentialism: You know, like a Soren Kierkegaard kind of thing of, ‘hey, [meaning is] not just meant to be localized over here … all of life is spiritual. Everything you do contributes to who you are as a person and to the overall meaning of your life.”

That’s heady stuff for an animated movie to tackle, to be sure. But for Pixar and Docter, it’s more or less business as usual.

“It’s not like we ever hoped to answer the question of ‘What is life all about?’ That’s ridiculous to think you could,” he says. “But at the very least, we hope we would incite some good conversations and make people go, ‘OK, we got to go get some coffee and talk about this.’”

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