Article ID: JAR2103RV | By: Robert Velarde
A film Review of
Directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers
Story and screenplay by Pete Docter, Kemp Powers, and Mike Jones
(Rated PG, 2020)
**Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for Soul.**
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When C. S. Lewis wrote the preface to his book The Great Divorce, a story about a bus trip from hell to heaven, he found it wise to include a sort of disclaimer, noting that the book should be taken as fantasy, not biblical truth: “I beg readers to remember that this is a fantasy. It has of course — or I intended it to have — a moral. But the transmortal conditions are solely an imaginative supposal: they are not even a guess or a speculation at what may actually await us. The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world.”1 In short, the imaginary journey in The Great Divorce is a creative backdrop (a theological fantasy) to the larger theme or moral. Similarly, Pixar’s twenty-third film, Soul (Disney+),2 offers glimpses into the afterlife and the nature of the soul, not as an academic presentation on metaphysics or theology, but as a means to tell a story about life.
Directed by the current head of Pixar Animation Studios, Pete Docter, Soul in some ways represents the director’s exploration of ideas in his previous films. In Monsters, Inc. (2001), Docter told a humorous story about creatures scaring children in order to produce a source of power. In the end, laughter and joy are found to be far more powerful. In Up (2009), nominated for Best Picture, the director told a touching story of the significance of love, while Inside Out (2015) navigated the importance of our emotions in shaping our character and decisions.
Soul is the story of Joe Gardner, an African-American middle-school band teacher who would much rather be performing jazz piano in clubs, following in his late father’s footsteps as a jazz musician, instead of pursuing the often thankless and too often low-paying task of teaching. In short, Joe believes he has lost his opportunity to fulfill his life purpose and follow his dream as a jazz pianist. It doesn’t take long for Joe to receive an opportunity to perform with a group he admires, The Dorothea Williams Quartet, when a former drum student, Curley, calls and asks him to audition for a chance to fill in for a performance that very evening at a local New York jazz club The Half Note.
In a comical sequence, Joe is so excited about the opportunity that we see him walking through Manhattan, avoiding several close calls, when suddenly he falls into a manhole and presumably is on the verge of death. In some beautiful animation reminiscent of the emotions in Inside Out, Joe finds himself in a glowing blue “body,” still wearing his hat, but clearly he’s not in Kansas anymore. Joe is in fact on a sort of heavenly escalator on his way to The Great Beyond — Soul’s term for the afterlife. Unwilling to accept defeat so close to achieving his musical dream of performing jazz for a living, Joe turns back and forces his way into what we later learn is The Great Before, which turns out to be a kind of orientation or preparation area for new souls before they arrive on Earth.
Soon he meets Jerry, a sort of celestial custodian or guide in The Great Before. In fact, most of the beings in authority in this realm are named Jerry, who describes itself as, “the coming together of all quantized fields of the universe, appearing in a form your feeble human brain can comprehend.” Jerry mistakes Joe for a mentor — someone who has died but has made the decision to mentor new souls before they depart for Earth. Joe plays along, eager to find a way back to Earth, as he is unable to return on his own. Joe is quickly assigned to mentor 22, a soul who refuses to go to Earth because “she” has no interest in living. Joe sees an opportunity to mentor 22 and in the process get a pass so his soul can return to his body and he can pursue his dream of being a successful jazz pianist.
Joe does indeed make it back to Earth, but accidentally enters the body of a cat, while 22 enters Joe’s body. This sets up a variety of comical scenes, as 22 has no experience or desire to live, while Joe is stuck in the body of a therapy cat named Mr. Mittens. A series of misadventures leads Joe and 22 to a colorful character named Moonwind who spends his days spinning an advertisement sign on a corner of Manhattan, while his soul, via meditation, is really in The Zone, seeking to help lost souls find their way. Moonwind explains that he can help Joe get back to his body, which, of course, can only be done at 6:30 p.m. that evening, exactly thirty minutes before Joe is expected to perform with The Dorothea Williams Quartet.
Nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Animated Feature Film, there’s no doubt that Soul is a fun, compelling film, beautifully scored and animated, and voiced by excellent talent (such as Jamie Foxx as Joe and Tina Fey as 22). But at this juncture, Christian readers are sure to have had a few red flags raised, theologically speaking, leading to a number of questions. Joe is almost dead but is able to return to his body? The afterlife made a mistake? Souls exist before they are born? Humans can visit celestial realms via meditation? Does God exist or do anything in this fictional world? Parents may be especially alarmed, unsure of how to assess Soul, or not sure if their children should even be allowed to view it.
Before offering some advice to concerned Christian parents, let me briefly explore some of the questionable theological content in Soul, particularly the nature of the soul, the afterlife, and a variety of ideas presented primarily by Moonwind. First, the soul. In a world inundated by naturalism, where the material world is viewed as all that really exists, Pixar is to be applauded for acknowledging the reality of the immaterial realm, including the reality of the soul. Granted, it is a fictional film meant to tell a story, but at the very least the existence of the soul is accepted at face value. But does the soul exist before life? The biblical answer is no. Although the concept of pre-existing souls is ancient — found in Plato’s thought for instance, Origen’s writings, and even present in modern-day religions such as Mormonism — the Bible does not teach that souls pre-exist or that they are somehow in a Great Before, aware of their existence and being prepared for life on Earth. Orthodox biblical theology teaches that the soul is created and unified with the body at conception. In Genesis 2:7, for example, God breathes “the breath of life” (NIV) into Adam, with nothing said about a pre-existent soul.
Second, Soul portrays some colorful ideas about the afterlife. Again, the film at least acknowledges the reality of life after death, despite rampant secularism and philosophical materialism in our culture. As most films portraying an afterlife do, Soul falls into some similar patterns. For instance, the entities seemingly in charge of administering the afterlife are fallible. In short, they make mistakes that typically allow the story to move forward. The 1978 film Heaven Can Wait, for instance, does something similar when a character is pulled into the afterlife too soon by mistake, thus allowing him to return to Earth for a second chance, but this time in a different body. In Soul, it’s also unclear who or what is running the show, so to speak. The Jerry beings are present in The Great Before, preparing souls for Earth; and Terry, the celestial accountant, ensures that every soul is accounted for, but there is no mention of how this system was set up or who runs it, if anything or anyone. There are some brief comments in soul about this reality, but nothing concrete. 22, for instance, states, “this is all an illusion, this whole place is hypothetical.” In other words, the afterlife is apparently portrayed to humans in a way they can comprehend it, meaning that we don’t have a clear picture at all of what is holding this universe together. In the Christian worldview, God is the supreme being, the Creator of all that exists, who not only made reality but sustains it on a moment-by-moment basis. The afterlife is not administered by a flawed being who makes mistakes about where a soul should be.
Third, the character of Moonwind is presented as comic relief, but many of the strange, unbiblical ideas in Soul are rooted in him. Moonwind, for instance, is able to leave his body and allow his soul to travel to a spiritual realm. He speaks of the Eastern energy concept of chakras,3 as well as trances and drum circles designed to induce altered states of consciousness. While presented comically, these ideas have more in common with the occult than with anything related to Christian theism. Astral projection, transmigration of the soul, soul travel, and so forth, are clearly Eastern and “new spirituality” concepts, not Christianity. To deliberately seek to penetrate the world of the occult, even for seemingly benevolent reasons, is biblically forbidden, not to keep humans from having fun or better understanding reality, but for our own protection from spiritual dangers that we are not equipped to handle.
With all that said, if Soul were biblically accurate, it would end quickly: “People are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27 NIV). But Soul isn’t attempting to present an orthodox, systematic Christian theology. Instead, its ideas about the afterlife and the soul are creative backdrops — often humorous in nature — to its central life-affirming story. We are called to exegete culture and its artifacts. This means we are to apply our best understanding and analytical abilities to interpret and engage culture and its artifacts including art, film, music, science, history, and more. Doing this well is rarely as simple as entrenching ourselves in our worldview, allowing nothing else in, or fully embracing culture and celebrating it without criticism.
When it comes to Soul, the distractions it presents by way of its portrayal of the soul, the afterlife, and Moonwind’s ideas, are all in support of the greater theme of the film. In the end, Soul is about life and the wonderful possibilities and experiences it holds for each of us. There is more to life than achieving our dreams. Maybe we end up teaching middle-school band or serving as a barber, as one character does who previously wanted to be a veterinarian, but we can still live life well. When Joe is in The Great Before seeing images and scenes of his life, we see a statue of Joe sitting next to his washing machine, doing laundry. Is this a sad life? Not necessarily. Biblically we are to live our lives, glorifying God in what we do. A parent caring for children by teaching them, doing laundry, preparing meals, sharing insights into the biblical wordlview is not a life wasted or a life without purpose. In fact, it may be one of the most important callings.
Christian parents need to weigh their unique situations, making decisions they believe are best for their young children. For some, this may include focusing on the overall theme of Soul instead of the various supporting elements that cause concern. Soul can also provide an opportunity to clarify what the Bible teaches about the soul and the afterlife. The film can also spark the age-old question, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” Furthermore, to base our assessment of Soul merely on our disagreement with certain concepts that are not central to the story is to disregard the possibility of common grace — the idea that through God’s grace the secular world can indeed convey meaningful truths, even if only in part. Finally, for those who view Soul as heresy, we must remember that a heretic must first profess truth then turn away from it. Pixar is a secular movie studio, in no way bound to including exclusively orthodox Christian ideas in its content. Through common grace and natural law, for instance, we may find ideas in Pixar films that resonate with Christianity, but to expect their films to adhere to the biblical worldview is unrealistic.
In the end, in Soul Joe learns that even though he performed as a jazz musician with one of his musical heroes, there is more to life. We can enjoy so much more that God has given us in this world, even what Joe calls “just regular old living,” like taking a walk or staring at the sky. Ultimately, Soul is a life-affirming story, celebrating the promise that life holds. For the Christian, made in God’s image, we have the potential for what we paradoxically may term ordinary greatness. Our lives may seem ordinary, but we are destined for royalty as children of God. Yes, this life can be heartbreaking and difficult, but it also holds so much more that is good and true and holy. Like the theological fantasy The Great Divorce by Lewis, Soul is not crafted to teach us the minutiae of eschatology, including what happens when we die. Instead, it focuses on the value of life and making the most of the time we have.
Robert Velarde, MA, is author of several books including The Wisdom of Pixar (InterVarsity Press, 2010), A Visual Defense (Kregel, 2013), and Conversations with C. S. Lewis (InterVarsity Press, 2008).
- C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1946), 8.
- Soul, directed by Pete Docter, written by Pete Docter, Mike Jones, Kemp Powers (Burbank: Walt Disney Productions, 2020). Released December 25, 2020, Soul is streaming on Disney+.
- Editor’s Note: Within Hinduism, chakras are said to be centers of psychic energy located in the human nervous system. See Elliot Miller, “The Yoga Boom: A Call for Christian Discernment, Part 1,” Christian Research Journal 31, 2 (2008), https://www.equip.org/article/the-yoga-boom-a-call-for-christian-discernment-part-1/.