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  • Writer's pictureIlana Davis

Film & Philosophy: Pixar's Soul: A Search for Meaning

Updated: Mar 27


Characters from the movie Soul

I started EntertainMental as a means for exploring the concepts and themes of film as they relate to human nature. Like any other form of art - paintings, literature, theater - contemporary movies and television have a profound way of reaching the parts of my mind and heart that remain closed off in the arbitrary sense.


There is this constant existential feeling I hold within my soul; a need for understanding and an answer to life’s infinite questions that seem to never come to a close. Why do I reside on this Earth, in this year, in an age where purpose appears fleeting amid endless possibilities? More than this, what am I to do with my time on this planet; though it may feel long on those days when I question my existence, a lifetime is but a second within the universe’s timeline.


In college, I took a philosophy course through my university - Meaning of the Mind - where we discussed dualism, qualia, and the concept of identity. The resulting conclusion for the class seemed to be that there is no set notion of consciousness; that concept within humans that drives higher thought and self-awareness cannot be explained simply because it cannot be tangibly defined. Where, then, does the soul reside within us? Do humans even have souls, and if so, what exactly does such a theoretical concept entail?


Pixar’s Soul, directed by Inside Out's Pete Doctor, captures these timeless questions in just ninety minutes. It covers ideas of life and death, meaning and meaninglessness to an audience in the grips of isolation, existentialism, and the threat of imploding civilizations.


What is Soul About (Wikipedia):


Joe Gardner, a middle school music teacher, has long dreamed of performing jazz music onstage, and finally gets a chance after impressing other jazz musicians during an opening act at the Half Note Club. However, an untimely accident causes Gardner's soul to be separated from his body and begin to proceed to the Great Beyond, and Gardner manages to escape to the Great Before, a world where souls develop personalities, quirks, and traits before being sent off to Earth. There, Gardner must work with souls in training at the Great Before, such as 22, a soul with a dim view on the concept of life, in order to return to Earth before his body dies.


Soul offers previously unexplored explanations for life’s greatest questions through clever metaphors and simple depictions of what might happen after death (and before life). But this is not a film about death, despite the subject matter. Rather, it is a film about life’s complexities in a realm where everything seems new; there is so much to learn.


22 has been taught about life by some of history’s strongest thinkers, leaders, and performers - yet this young soul still fails to grasp the essence of living. In a clever montage of 22’s feats of despair, 22 makes Mother Theresa cry, sets Copernicus off about how the world doesn’t revolve around humans and offers a beheaded Marie Antoinette cake, to which she refuses. 22 has learned from the best mentors in the Great Before but has yet to put these lessons into practice.


But Joe Gardner, who falls to the Great Before in an attempt to escape death, is the flame that ignites 22’s excitement to embrace the real world. Mundane as his life may seem, it in fact portrays humanity in its simplest form. The two make their way back to Earth, where 22 takes over Joe’s body, acting as him and experiencing the world in all its glory and anguish. Here, 22 learns the value of life, as Joe witnesses a life he failed to live up to during his time on Earth. And once again, Joe is faced with the threat of death; Joe knows he shouldn’t be on Earth, and 22 can’t reside in his body forever. This life of his is quick and fleeting - as it is for us all. 

 
What Is a Soul?

The soul is a tricky thing to define; each great thinker has tried to establish the essence of living in some way or another, as have countless religions and cultures throughout history. I offer two thought experiments from my own life: 


“All soul is immortal. For that which is always in movement is immortal; that which moves something else, and is moved by something else, in ceasing from movement ceases from living.”

- Plato 


Plato, for instance, believed that the soul was “immortal.” While the body dies, souls live on essentially rebirthing themselves each time. 


My grandfather passed away in his sleep on July 31st, 2009. Before my parents even told me, I could sense he was gone; I dreamt of it - or so I have convinced myself. I existed for a moment in some liminal space, still in my bed but in an otherwise void of darkness. My grandfather appeared, dressed in his usual attire of Levi’s jeans and a plaid shirt; a single ballpoint pen and folded eyeglasses poking out of his chest pocket. No words were exchanged and all I could do was stare; his skin and smile and everything on the surface drifted away along with a brief wind blowing in a vortex toward the center of the void. All that remained was, as it can only be described: a “meat suit.” This marked the end of physical life. 


This was a man who I had admired dearly and whose story continues to inspire me. Was this his soul’s way of saying goodbye? Or how, still young and naive, coped with the concept of loss and eternal nothingness? Did he drift away into “The Great Beyond,” as depicted in Soul? These questions have plagued the young and the old, as they have since the beginning of time.


"There is nothing in the soul that doesn't get there through the senses."

- Aristotle. 


Meanwhile, Aristotle contributed the soul as an extension of the senses. 


There have been times in my life in which I felt lifeless - soulless. When my mind attacks itself in a bout of depression or heightened anxiety and, in turn, my body fills with rage or simply can’t arise from bed. These mental afflictions affect the physical in a way that feels connected. But that’s also helped me along the way. 


It’s taken a great deal of time and effort to get to the place I’m at now, though these feelings reemerge far more often than I’d like. I tried everything to combat this apparent fact; finding hobbies like photography or doing puzzles. I’ve made friends and reconnected with family, losing some along the way, too. I began writing more as a means of communicating these thoughts and feelings that can’t be expressed and have, in turn, turned trivial ideas into the literal. Like Soul’s Joe, these things help me connect with the world when I feel as though I don’t belong in it. 


 

So, who was right? Is the soul, as Plato suggests, some metaphysical entity that exists - and has existed - regardless of the body it possesses? Or is it fixed within a person as related to the physical, per Aristotle’s argument? 


The soul cannot easily be defined because everything attributed to its existence is constantly fleeting. A living being possesses character, personality, feeling, consciousness, memory, perception, thought. I like to say that the body is but a vessel; it carries the soul through life across foreign lands and in intimate settingsand when we are with loved ones and in solitude. Yet the body fades. A soul is immortal and exists outside time and space. With all that, it can be easy to forget that, for right now, we do exist. Maybe we’ll go to The Great Beyond or The Great Before, but will never know until we live through the present. 


But aside from the sappy metaphysicality of it all, a soul’s “spark” - as the film calls it - is meant to drive a person’s existence. It’s not a purpose, as Soul so beautifully explains; rather it’s how one takes that spark and uses it during a lifetime. But be careful not to let that spark go out - this is the fate of the lost souls depicted in the film. To be so far detached from earthly desires is to send oneself on a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure and regret. A soul’s purpose is to discover its purpose. This may take a moment, or even a lifetime, but is something to discover nonetheless. 


 

I think I’ve found my spark; the one that ignites my soul to live each day empowered and ready to conquer a world of inspiration. If not, then I’m having fun searching. Soul’s Joe finds passion in music, in teaching the youth, and in those insignificant, indescribable moments of sensation and satisfaction. I too can find meaning and pursuit in the moments and events that have shaped and defined me, and carry these with me as I continue through a life I have yet to discover.


New Soul - Yael Naim

I'm a new soul, I came to this strange world

Hoping I could learn a bit about how to give and take

But since I came here, felt the joy and the fear

Finding myself making every possible mistake



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1 Comment


eleanorbethbate71
Mar 20

Hi !!! You obviously don't know me, but reading this, I feel as though I know you, and that we are very similar people. I thought you would like to know that I am currently studying philosophy at uni and writing an essay for my philosophy of film module, I've referenced your article in my essay as I think it really speaks to the point I'm trying to make about movies having the ability to practically 'do philosophy' and engage in inquiry and exploration. I've also used some beautiful quotes from you, so if you've not been referenced or quoted in someone's essay before, I am so glad to be the first one !!! I will definitely look for more…

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