Tonight my wife and I watched "Soul" while we ate our usual vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner: Trader Joe's Breaded Turkey-Less Stuffed Roast With Gravy, mashed potatoes, salad, homemade apple pie with wholewheat crust.
That's a soulful meal for us. No animals were harmed in its making. Well, our dog begged while we were eating, and she didn't get anything, so I guess we hurt Mooka's feelings. She'll recover.
Soul had arrived as a DVD from Netflix months ago.
We rarely watch DVDs now that we've escaped the clutches of oh-so-slow CenturyLink DSL and embraced Space X's Starlink satellite internet. But it seemed like Thanksgiving was an opportune time to watch an uplifting movie.
I liked Soul a lot. Though animated, it's certainly not aimed at young children. I had trouble following some of the plot twists, and parts of Soul are disturbing while not exactly scary.
Fortunately, I'd read part of a review of Soul by a Vox writer in December 2020, when the movie was released. The review's title is right-on: "Soul is Pixar's most visually inventive film, and one of its most poignant."
Since Alissa Wilkinson, the reviewer, clearly grasped Soul more fully than I did (she says she watched it twice, which explains part of her increased comprehension), I'll let excerpts from her review describe why I found Soul so inspiring and philosophically profound.
It just makes so much sense that our purpose in life isn't fated, predestined, meant to be, or a result of our strongest talents. The central message of Soul is to find the spark that kindles a joy in our living. Absent that spark, we're alive but not really living.
So if we've found that spark, this is something to be thankful for. Not just on Thanksgiving. Every day. Here's the most philosophical review excerpts.
Midway through Soul, our hero, Joe — or, sort of Joe, but you’ll have to watch the movie to know what I mean — is sitting in a barbershop, in desperate need of a haircut before a big make-or-break gig that night. Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is a jazz pianist whose performance career has never really gotten off the ground; to make ends meet, he’s been teaching middle school band. But he’s confident that he was put on this earth to play jazz, and tonight’s gig might finally be his chance.
Joe’s barber, Dez (voiced by Donnell Rawlings), is talking about his own life, something the pair have never really discussed before. Dez wanted to be a veterinarian when he was younger, following his discharge from the Navy. But his daughter got sick, and, as he says, “barber school is a lot cheaper than veterinarian school.”
Joe is surprised — wasn’t Dez born to be a barber? Isn’t that his purpose? He’s great at it, and he seems to love it so much. “That’s too bad. Now you’re stuck as a barber, and you’re unhappy,” Joe says to Dez.
But Dez tells him to slow his roll, because, as he says, he’s “happy as a clam” doing what he does. Sure, it wasn’t his dream to be a barber; he never felt like it was his “calling.” But he gets to talk to interesting people all day and make folks happy. Dez loves his life. And Joe leaves the shop with a lot to ponder.
That’s the philosophical thesis of Soul, the latest Pixar film from director Pete Docter (Inside Out) and first-time Pixar collaborator Kemp Powers (who also wrote the terrific upcoming drama One Night in Miami).
...The last little piece for all of the souls to acquire before they can head to earth is a “spark.” A soul can get this by working with a mentor, which is the soul of a dead person that’s volunteered to help out the new souls. (Think Mother Teresa, or Sir Isaac Newton.)
The spark is the focus of Soul, and — importantly — how a spark differs from a “purpose,” which one of the big beings that shepherds the souls around derides as one of those words the mentors use that don’t really mean anything. A spark is not your purpose. It is, instead, the thing that makes you feel like you’re living.
That’s such a compelling and imaginative concept for an animated children’s film that I had to rewatch the movie to make sure I got it right. Like Inside Out, which delved into “negative” and “positive” emotions in a more nuanced way than I’d seen in a film before, Soul teases out some distinctions that seem to run almost counter to our everyday way of talking about life.
We talk about some kids being obviously born to take up a certain profession; we ask high school and college students to take tests that determine their purpose or their “gift,” then cast those in terms of occupations. And if we had a dream of doing one job, but life or necessity led us in another direction, then we struggle with feeling like failures.
Surely some of the reason so many adults feel like they have to land their “dream job” or else they’ve failed in some way is as a result of movies — especially, I might add, the Disney variety — that relentlessly exhort children to pursue their dreams and not let anyone else tell them who they are. It’s not that the sentiment is wrong; it’s just that, according to Soul’s cosmology, it’s getting things a little backward.
In this world, you don’t have a predetermined purpose, which is to say that there’s no slot on earth into which you, specifically, are meant to fall. Instead, there’s something about living that, in turn, sparks life in you. And it may or may not overlap with how you make a living, or where you live, or myriad other things about you.
Which means that your worth as a person isn’t tied to the job you have, either. For generations, we’ve caught on to the idea that our value to society is based on what occupation we’ll have, and we’ve devalued some (blue-collar work, like plumbing, bartending, and working a cash register) while elevating others (white-collar jobs, like investment banker, lawyer, or professor).
We’re supposed to subscribe to the mantra of “do what you love.” And in a world where it’s harder and harder to make a living doing certain kinds of jobs, that’s especially dispiriting — a kind of utilitarianism that doesn’t capture the whole of a person. Soul tries to nudge the pendulum in the other direction, to say that a life lived in pursuit of the spark of joy, rather than some predetermined purpose, is the one to strive for.