Film & Philosophy: Pixar's Soul: A Search for Meaning
Updated: Feb 15
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, theatre - 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 amidst 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.
I just completed 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 is, that piece within humans which 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, relaying the concepts of life and death, meaning and meaninglessness to an audience in the grips of isolation, existentialism, and the threat of imploding civilizations.
A quick synopsis of the film from 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. But this is not a film about death, despite the subject matter. Rather, it is a film about life’s complexities amidst a realm where everything seems new; there is so much to learn.
22 has previously been taught about life from 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 Copernicous 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 live.
But Joe Gardner, who falls to the Great Before in an attempt to escape death, is the flame that ignites 22’s sense of life. 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 with all its glory and anguish. Here, 22 learns the value of living, as Joe witnesses a life he failed to live up to during his time on Earth. Amidst this all is the threat of death once again; Joe knows he shouldn’t be on Earth, and 22 cannot reside in his body forever.
As a young girl, I dreamt of my grandfather’s death the night of his passing - or so I have convinced myself. I found myself in a void of darkness, the only thing in sight was me, lying in my childhood bed. My grandfather - a man I had admired and am still inspired by - appeared before me in his usual attire of jeans and a plaid shirt with that chest pocket filled with a single ball point pen and eyeglasses. He didn’t say anything, and all I could do was stare. Soon after, his skin and smile and everything on the surface blew away with the wind farther into the void. All that remained was, as I call it, a ‘meat suit’ marking the end of a physical life. Was this his way of saying goodbye to me, moments before his death, into ‘the Great Beyond’? Was this my way of coping with his loss at such a young age, when in reality, I still didn’t understand the concept of death itself? These questions plague the old and the young, and have done so since the beginning of time.
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. But the soul cannot easily be defined because everything attributed to its existence is constantly fleeting with each passing moment. 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 settings, when we are with loved ones and in solitude. Yet the body fades; but a soul is immortal and exists outside time and space.
But the soul cannot easily be defined because everything attributed to its existence is constantly fleeting with each passing moment.
But aside from the metaphysicality of it all, a soul’s ‘spark’ 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. Basically, 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 spent a great number of years battling severe depression; I felt no desire to live amongst a world I myself deemed cruel and void of hope. 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; I took up photography and created Tiny Planets to remind myself of the individual moments that made up my perception of the world. I started writing more as a means of communicating the debilitating thoughts that I encounter on a daily basis. I’ve connected with friends and family, and lost some too. I’ve run into trouble over the years and even found myself as a lost soul for some time… and I’m sure I will again.
But 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, albeit at times confusing and frustrating. 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