‘Soul’ Is the Anti-Disney Disney Movie

JANUARY 8, 2021  |  DUSTIN CROWE©Courtesy Disney/Pixa

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Christians won’t agree with much of what Soul depicts about souls, the afterlife, or spirituality in general. There’s a lot of bad theology and problematic pop spirituality in the movie. But while the film gets plenty wrong, it also gets some important things right. Soul affirms life and the existence of purpose and meaning. It critiques much of the naturalism, materialism, and expressive individualism prevalent today, and in a surprising way it challenges the Disney movie dogma often promoted by its predecessors.

Directed by Pete Doctor and Kemp Powers, Soul tells the story of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), an African American middle-school band teacher who dreams of making it as a jazz pianist. After an accident puts him into a near-death “holding pattern” coma, we’re taken on a journey with his soul as he explores life and death, where souls go (The Great Beyond), and where souls come from (The Great Before). A not-yet-born soul named 22 (Tina Fey)—who is avoiding an embodied life on Earth—joins Joe in this story. Though each of them begins from different starting points—Joe not wanting to die and 22 not wanting to live—both discover that “all this living is worth dying for.”

Death Is Unavoidable. Life Is Precious.

While death resides in the background of many Disney movies—usually a lost parent(s)—it has recently become more foregrounded (example: Coco) and takes center stage in Soul. Death can strike anywhere, at any time, for anyone. Just as he finally gets his big break—a chance to play with jazz legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett)—Joe falls into a manhole.

In this fallen world, death’s pervasiveness haunts life. It looms in the shadows of our whole existence, always on our heels. But as we learn in the Bible, living with an awareness life’s fragility (James 4:13–17Prov. 27:1Ps. 39:4), and living with the end in mind, helps us live faithfully in the present (Eccl. 7:8–9Eph. 5:15–17). The bitterness of death helps us savor the sweetness of life.

Life is a vapor, as 2020 made us all painfully aware. Even if we don’t agree with everything in Soul, we can affirm its primary message: life is precious, valuable, and purposeful.

Even if we don’t agree with everything in Soul, we can affirm its primary message: life is precious, valuable, and purposeful.

Joe’s life isn’t a fairy tale; it’s real, relatable, wonderfully mundane. His life isn’t the one he dreamed about, yet it’s still good and inherently precious. Throughout the film Joe fights to hold on to his life, and his will to live piques 22’s curiosity. “Your life is so sad and pathetic, and you’re working so hard to get back to it,” she tells Joe, reflecting modern cynicism about life. But through her experiences with Joe, she discovers life is worth living. The existential question she poses in the barber shop, “Is dying worth living for?” is answered with a resounding “Yes!” as she finally sees the joy, beauty, and wonder of life.

In a world where life is increasingly seen as meaningless and easily discarded, Soul compellingly assures us: life is a precious gift. 

Anti-Disney Disney Movie

In some ways, Soul is the anti-Disney Disney movie. Whereas most recent Disney movies tell me to find my purpose by looking within (self-discovery) and chasing my dream at all costs (self-actualization), Soul takes a different approach.

One of Joe’s key learnings is that “a passion is not a purpose.” Our dreams and sparks of inspiration are important, but they’re not why we exist. Part of Joe’s confusion and misguided quest is his assumption that his passion (jazz) is his reason for living. He explains to his mother that this is why he was born; it’s his reason to live.

One of the characters, a barbershop owner named Dez, helps Joe and 22 understand the distinction between passion and purpose. Dez dreamed of being a veterinarian, not a barber. But Dez enjoys being a barber, including the small acts of helping people, meeting interesting characters, and providing a listening ear to anyone who sits in his chair. It doesn’t have to be your best life now to be a beautiful life worth living. 

It doesn’t have to be your best life now to be a beautiful life worth living.

Joe and 22 come to see that some of life’s greatest joys aren’t the big things we dream about but the little blessings—even the struggles and challenges—we encounter in everyday life. There is joy in the ordinary and meaning in the here-and-now, not just in our “happily ever after” fairy tales about the future. This seeming deviation from the Disney canon is an essential part of the story. In order to be happy, we don’t have to drop everything and follow our heart to the one thing we think will make us happy. Wherever God has us, we can find purpose—and this purpose doesn’t depend on our passions.

A second example of the film’s understanding of purpose is that it exists outside of us rather than inside of us. Joe doesn’t create his own purpose; he enters a world where meaning exists independent of him. The film’s worldview might not be Christian, but (intentionally or not) it affirms transcendent realities about a world neither devoid of purpose nor reduced to subjective constructions of meaning.

For many kids today who have grown up in the “follow your heart” era (often perpetuated by Disney films), where the burden of purpose and self-worth depends on the extent to which they can express themselves uniquely (and be affirmed by others), Soul’s message comes as a breath of freeing fresh air.

When Passion Becomes Obsession

Another valuable lesson in Soul is that our passions (things that “spark joy”) can become idols when they become sources of ultimate satisfaction, security, or meaning. While passions can be good gifts, they make bad gods.

In one of the “beyond” realms Joe explores, there’s a place where “lost souls” wander, some who have turned their passion (that which puts us in “the zone”) into idols. The guide in this realm (Moonwind) explains, “The zone is enjoyable, but when that joy becomes an obsession, one does become disconnected from life.” We see a wandering soul scanning for his passion like a man with a metal-detector desperate to find a treasure. When we define our purpose by a single passion, we lose both. 

Wherever God has us, we can find purpose—and this purpose doesn’t depend on our passions.

Joe learns this firsthand when he shrinks his life’s significance down to his passion to be a successful jazz musician. It crushes him under the weight, and ultimately leaves him disappointed. “I’ve been waiting on this day for my entire life,” he says when he gets to play in Dorothea’s band. “I thought I’d feel different.” Passions taste bitter when we mistakenly believe they can satisfy our hunger. But once Joe returns home, feeling disappointed and empty, he plays his piano simply for the pleasure of it, enjoying jazz for its own sake. When the gift remains a gift, rather than a carrier of all his hopes and dreams, he finds joy in it again.

This lesson revises the Disney ethos a bit. Life’s magic and meaning isn’t primarily found by looking within for a spark, talent, or passion that needs to be expressed. Instead, maybe it’s found by looking around us at the beauty of the world we’ve been given—and then looking up, with awe and gratitude, at the Giver.

Dustin Crowe serves as pastor of discipleship at Pennington Park Church in Fishers, Indiana. You can follow him on Twitter or visit his blog. He’s the author of The Grumbler’s Guide to Giving Thanks: Reclaiming the Gifts of a Lost Spiritual Discipline.

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