Part-Time Mini-Review: Soul


It felt like Soul was a step forward for Pixar when it comes to going back to their ambitious, risky, mature, and existential premises/themes from their most creative runs in the 2000's. Unfortunately, the final product rises to those heights only in brief spurts. What follows is a bit about the film and one major theological reflection I wanted to share, but was a bit too long for social media.

It's pretty engaging stuff overall - gorgeously animated, some creative world-building - and I found myself doing some serious reflecting on the worldview implied by the film. However, at the end of the day, the narrative feels cluttered & the "surprise" narrative turn at the end didn't feel right to me. It felt like our main character's ultimate "discovery is really one of those problems that could have been solved if the characters who made him a mentor just explained his role a bit more clearly. 

Additionally, there is one MAJOR omission in the world-building that kept gnawing on me. To share it will lead to SPOILERS about the theme, so be warned. 

The "pre-born" souls in this universe can't leave for earth until they've gained their "spark," which instead of a single defined purpose (as our main characters wrongly believe) it is more of a zest/desire to enjoy life and live it to the fullest, in whichever ways that might end up being. It's a nice message and frankly, it's a refreshing corrective for most of these kids animated features that make it seem as though every child is born with some kind of singular destiny (to play piano, to sing songs, etc). The primary issue I am having with this message is that the world the movie builds subverts the message into a dangerous one.

There is no God in the movie, even though we are dealing with the issues of souls, birth, and death. There is no mention that a Creator or designer inhabits the spiritual world of SOUL. Removing God changes the context of the message, "Live life to the fullest." After enjoying earth to its fullest – loving the beauty of nature, the warmth of community, the taste of pizza, the enchantment of music, etc. - who are these souls to thank for that? Gratitude and thankfulness are fundamental to a healthy enjoyment of life. Any parent knows that without learning thankfulness, children can quickly turn into entitled consumers. As Christian author G.K. Chesterton said, “When we were children, we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmas time. Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs?” and “When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.” 

In removing the presence of a Creator/designer of the universe, the filmmakers may have removed themselves from an unwanted religious debate, but they also turned their core theme of “live life unto the fullest” into one of selfishness. In the world of Soul, souls are created to consume experiences that make them happy and then they die and go to the “Great Beyond.” The evil in this world of Soul is to become too obsessed with a good and therefore become a lost soul. While this is a good message (one St. Augustine would likely enjoy), it overlooks the deeper evil created by the world they built: souls constantly consuming with absolutely nowhere proper to turn to show thanks, gratitude, and humility.

While a Christian could/should certainly embrace the message that we aren’t born with some singular “purpose” and are called to spark to the joy and wonder of life alone – it’s hard to embrace that message when it’s never directed outside of the self. In reality, Christians believe the joy and wonder of life is a gift given to us by our Creator and that our thankfulness, gratitude, humility, and yes, even service/obedience to that Creator is the proper response. This is what spiritual life is all about. 

Yes, God created us to enjoy (and manage and extend!) His creation – but as gifts from him and not as thankless consumers. To be fair, Soul is put out by a major corporation (Disney/Pixar) that likely doesn’t want to enter into explicitly religious debates and by showing a Creator they felt it went too far. While understandable, one can't enter the realm of spirituality timidly and with hands tied behind their back. Unfortunately, this impulse works to create a world in Soul where it’s creatures have no one to thank beyond themselves or others. It’s a world where the primary goal is inward and the possibility of true gratitude has been removed. Remove the Creator and the creatures are bound to worship the created.

“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”—G. K. Chesterton