A Soul By Any Other Name – Soul Movie Review (Spoilers!)

#soul #disneypixar #blog #moviereview #spoilers #coco

Hey.

So.

Soul.

It’s one of those things that I was pretty sure I didn’t want to see. Can you blame me? That last semi-season of Lucifer and my annual Good Place binge really did me in. Yet another big ticket take on metaphysics and the after-life. Probably something depressing or infuriating, because of course Disney can’t take sides on any one religion or belief system. I expected this to be lukewarm, pandering, cliched and paternalistic. Probably downright offensive in its attempt to be unoffensive.

Not to mention I don’t have Disney Plus anymore, and wasn’t about to get back on that manure wagon.

And yes, I’ll explore my own bias and stereotypes about secular media one day. And religious media, because yikes – that stuff can be downright nauseating most of the time. Could that day be today? Maybe.

Anyway, this movie came out over a year ago and I avoided it at all cost. It took me forever to even watch the YouTube reviews about it (that’s how I usually watch movies nowadays. Ain’t nobody got time for a feature length.) But then I got curious, as always. And finally, I found someone who has that Platform that’s so pretentious it refuses to be accessible on my five-year-old iPad or accept PayPal because I don’t believe in credit cards. Grumble grumble, kids and their technology, grumble grumble, corporate leeches, etc. Last Saturday, I took my life in my hands and dove into the world of Soul. And it shook me up a little, not gonna lie.

Okay, so, never mind wondering whether the title “Soul” was racially motivated. Never mind that this movie assumes that people actually do have a soul – something beyond the physical body that defines and drives a person, who is not merely a product of brain chemistry and firing neurons. It assumes that something does happen to this essence after the body dies, though we never see what that is exactly. Maybe their on their way to Coco Land, where they will have to rely on the memories of those in the living world to avoid dying again and fading into oblivion. No, what is actually defined is the before life. And man, is it ever a trip.

As a marketing nerd, let me tell you, the rebranding jokes really got to me. Who doesn’t love a good corporate pep rally and company face lifts? And I loved the Jerrys – benevolent but limited beings with awesome accents. Alice Braga? Yes please! I’m sure this takes place in the space when she and El Santo had to drink poison and hide in mud in “Queen of the South,” and you can’t prove otherwise.

As a rusty philosophy nerd (the GOOD PLACE!!!!), I loved the construct mumbo-jumbo. It falls around me like warm rain. And the colours! Everything! So gorgeous. And yeah, I wasn’t a fan of the ending – not only the prank on poor Terri, but the whole cliche thing where a pure heart makes someone eligible to circumvent the laws of the universe (like Hercules). But I think this was supposed to be a kid’s movie, and has Disney ever had the balls to permanently kill the main character? At least in Coco it made sense – Miguel wasn’t really supposed to be dead in the first place. But in Soul, the ending was more than a little shoe-horned. I think they had a a great opportunity to give kids the opportunity to accept that sometimes death is permanent.

I mean, it’s always permanent, but you know what I mean. Sometimes there is no loophole that gives someone’s life an extended cut and a delayed finale. I think this would have been a great place to do it, unlike in Hercules and Coco, because here, death isn’t really presented as something scary. There’s no skeletons. There’s no wasting away, either in the River Styx or crumbling to dust in some slum in the Land of the Dead.

Actually, I think death here was presented as nothing more than an inconvenience. Joe isn’t horrified at the idea of being dead so much as the tragedy of missing his big break. It’s lucky that his soul ended up in a holding pattern, isn’t it?

Like many others before it, Soul portrays a stratification of the afterlife. I think Hercules is a good contrast to this – in that universe, everyone just ends up becoming skeletal and eternally flowing in the River Styx. In Coco, the stratification is reflective of the capitalist society in real life, with living memories as the currency. The more people alive who remember you, which can be strongly tied to fame and therefore wealth in the real world, then the more opulence you have. But the fewer people on the earth who remember you, the closer you get to the slums and eventual, inevitable literal oblivion.

In Soul, the stratification is based on the “spark.” Before you have your spark, you are in the Great Before, trying to find it. Then, once you have your spark, you go to earth. Once you’re dead, and your spark fizzles out, you go Bed Bath and Beyond. Or, if you’ve been particularly adept at cultivating your spark, as many famous heroes in history have apparently been able to do, you might be selected to be a mentor, and avoid that mysterious and ominous section of the department store, where they play either digeridoos or throat music on an endless loop. And I think when you’re mentor work is done, you do end up going to the Great Beyond anyway, so it’s a limited reprieve. It’s never stated whether the Great Beyond is good or bad, or oblivion. Something that mentors should look forward to after their work, or something they should try to avoid by making themselves as valuable as possible. Certainly, it seems that Joe is the first one to try and cheat and take advantage of his pupil in order to return to his life on earth. Is he the first one that ends up in a holding pattern? Does stepping off the conveyor belt in time put you in the holding pattern? And others have asked: is this the first time anyone else has tried to step off? Even Joe’s frantic mad dash upstream doesn’t inspire mass panic or even one other soul to try and follow suit – so everyone is perfectly at peace with the end of their lives. Again, yet another reason that this could be a good place to explore that death doesn’t have to be scary, especially because it happens to everyone. Everyone reading this and everyone who watched that movie will be dead in 150 years. That’s it. Whether you get a miraculous Schneider cut or not, eventually, your movie will come to an end here on earth. And most likely, you won’t get a miracle. Such is life.

And there were other questions, sure. I’ll admit I don’t really understand Dorothea William’s fish story. I can imagine the writer of it rubbing his hands together and congratulating himself on coming up with something that sounds wise, but is just uncanny enough for people to go on a little tangent searching for meaning and arguing about what the little parable is actually trying to say. I think the best I can come up with is that it’s the answer to the meaning of life. Or rather, an anti-answer to what the spark is. It isn’t what you do. Once we achieve something that we believe is the culmination of our “purpose” or “spark,” we sometimes feel empty if we don’t realize that we’ve been living our purpose all along. Regular ol’ living, 22. But fish can’t see water, and we take for granted the fact that there’s no such thing as “making it.” Unless we can recognize and be grateful for what we already have, our contrivances of success just feel like nothing special, eventually.

I really recommend watching Billie Eilish’s fifth annual Vanity Fair interview for this year. She describes how once you achieve something you thought you always wanted, it very quickly loses its magic as it becomes just part of your everyday life, unless you take time to really practice gratitude. What matters most to her is her family and relationships, and being who she is. It really lifted my spirits yesterday, give it a watch!

And I may not completely understand the definition of the spark. But that’s okay. That’s not why I’m here. I’m here because of two concepts that were like little shining stars to me in this movie: “the zone” and “lost souls.” And okay, maybe the spark.

Let’s get that one out of the way. As far as I understand, the thesis of the film is that the meaning of life is not found in our talents and passions – what most people believe is their reason for being alive. It’s just being ready to live in general, I guess. “Your spark isn’t your purpose – it’s your meanings of life.” Yes, that’s begging the question. But maybe that’s the point? Somethings are just unknowable – and that’s okay. Uncertainty is an inevitable part of life, and the fact that we can’t avoid it means that we need to find a way to come to terms with it.

I’m starting a Change.org petition to let Joe die, I swear. I think the ending just undercut all the depth and nuance in this film, and that’s a crime against humanity.

The problem with your life purpose being your career is that if it doesn’t end up bringing you the satisfaction you thought it would, or, if for some reason you stop being able to do it, this can be like a sledgehammer to your mental health. Take “Me Before You,” a book that made me cry so hard at the unfairness of it all. Will Traynor would literally rather die than live his life in a wheelchair, because he’s mostly focused on what he can no longer do, and the fact that he now has to depend on others. Freedom, independence, and autonomy were what he believed his life’s meaning was. This manifested itself in his fortune and his adrenaline junky hobbies. Without this, nothing else matters, not even being in love and still being able to partake in a lot of what life has to offer – even if it’s in different ways. Maybe I’ll give that book another listen just to pull some razor blades over my heart, and do a deeper dive into what this means about euthanasia, disability, and depression. In any case, Will becomes a lost soul because of his obsession with his loss, and we can all take a page from this if we don’t learn to diversify and expand our meanings of life. If your spark comes from things that can be easily taken away, you might find yourself in a very difficult situation. Maybe you already are. I know I am.

One thing about the spark is that it can transport you to the zone, or a flow state. This is where I turned to the screen and was like, “that’s true representation, right there.” How often do artists try to explain to naysayers why exactly we are willing to give up everything in life to pursue our passions? They just don’t get it, man. They don’t understand what it’s like to get lost in a fantasy world that you’re building, where it doesn’t even feel like you’re creating it, just translating something that has already existed, and tweaking your interpretation until you get it just right. I feel this when I’m writing. And I used to play piano, just like Joe. But I as far as I can tell, the flow state was mostly portrayed as something based on an activity, particularly one that’s strongly tied to something you’re passionate about. Sign dancing, playing basketball or piano, stuff like that. With the whole thesis of the movie being about how these things are not the only things in life, I would have liked more emphasis on “regular ol’ living” bringing you into the flow state. I don’t know about you, but I can get lost in the zone by reading a good book. Eating an amazing meal. Watching a sunset, listening to music. Babbling nonsense to God. Sometimes just laying in bed staring at the ceiling. It doesn’t always have to be active – sometimes it’s passive, and it doesn’t involve me having to do anything at all except be. I think that’s the spark. When you can accept who you are and just be, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing. Our passions help to guide us to this place of acceptance, if we let them. Hence why spark can lead to flow. But they can also lead to a much darker zone, hence the fact that “purpose” is not a spark. It can be a detriment.

Lost Souls are portrayed as people who’ve become fixated and obsessed with something to the point where they cannot leave the zone. The flow state becomes like the River Styx – you’re trapped, and deteriorating, and your autonomy erodes away as you become consumed with something. I think I’ve heard it said that this is a portrayal of addiction – and I guess it can be. But I think the broader umbrella is obsession or fixation, conflated with detachment from reality, which would include addiction. It also includes depression, anxiety, and maybe even things like Schizophrenia and borderline. I think that a lot of mental health issues, whether psychotic or neurotic, physiological or psychological, can be contained within this metaphor of the Lost Soul. For me, it really is like a negative flow state. I come across concepts all the time for how to “solve” mental health. “Just do this. Don’t do that. Don’t let it get you down. Reach out. You’re in control of your thoughts and emotions.” On and on. And I’m not sure whether the movie meant to do this or not, but I feel like shoving 22’s scene as a lost soul into certain people’s faces and saying, “screw you, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I know Hercules isn’t really about that, but I do keep coming back to the imagery of the River Styx because for me, that’s what it can feel like when I get trapped in one of my many mental health snares. Just a recap, I’ve gone through diagnoses of “mild” depression, sex addiction, premenstrual dysphoria, seasonal affective disorder, attention deficit (not hyperactive) disorder, borderline personality disorder, and anxiety. I used to get angry with each new one, because it felt like people just kept getting it wrong. But I think I’m coming to the point of believing that I likely do have all of them, in a sort of tree or web. They all coexist and feed off of and into each other, like rivers or trees. I think the PMD, SAD, borderline and ADD are the hubs that result from chemicals/physiology, with the depression, anxiety, and sex addiction being more like psychological manifestations that likely wouldn’t be there without the others. Let’s hope that’s all of them. Good God.

Anyway, without being able to understand this mosaic network of fractured relationships I have with the world and myself, it would be easy to say that I should “just” do this or that. I beat myself up for not being able to follow the advice of my therapists and friends, who also don’t understand why I don’t “just” do x, y, or z. “Just go on medication. Just do this program. Just tell us when you’re struggling.” And I want to. Oh, you have no idea. I make plans, and I try as hard as I possibly can.

(Here, I start off on a very long side quest describing how mental health struggles are like a river and a raft – everyone starts out with different resources. Just another metaphor, give it a read and leave your thoughts here)

22 gets trapped in the Lost Soul flow state after repeated invalidation and bullying from Joe, and being left with the feeling that she has no purpose. This becomes an obsession and fixation, and when we get a peek into her storm, we see that the voices inside it are reinforcing this idea. Before this, however, we have Joe and Moonwind trying to find 22 in the deserts of the zone. This could be a metaphor for both physical and psychosocial isolation that comes with overwhelming mental health storms. Sometimes we physically run away. Sometimes we lock ourselves in our apartments. Sometimes we are sitting there, at work or school or the dinner table, surrounded by others but not saying much, locked away where no one can reach. To use a borderline example, I may have a raw, open, wound that I’m trying not to jostle. And if you come up to me and try to touch it so that you can help me bandage it, it will hurt so much that I will hiss at you and run away, just like 22 does. If you try to wrangle me and wrestle me to the ground, even if you’re trying to help (repeated invasions of my space, getting in my face about not letting things get me down or not worrying because God is in control) then I will probably go ballistic and do whatever I can to get away from you, even if it means hurting you. I haven’t done this physically, but I can imagine why others in the same position might get violent. It’s terrifying when you’re hurt and someone is getting in your face and overwhelming you. No, I might leave your event early, causing chaos, or I might go off on you with every lecture and argument I can think of, to get you to stop hurting me. I might refuse to talk to you and do what I can to make you worry about me. Either way, I might drag you down with me in my effort to get away from you. RIP, Moonwind’s pirate ship.

Even though I might be existing as a general lost soul before you came along trying to help, the act of you touching my wound and trying to wrestle me out of my state might put me into mega boss lost soul mode. In that state, I might become even more destructive to myself and my relationships, like 22 going on a rampage and throwing baby souls around (even if they can’t feel it). You might still be pursuing me, to the point where I can’t tolerate it anymore, and then I might just swallow you up.

Just a big old flood of all my pain, coming right at you. You think you can cure me? Well, cure this, bozo. See if how you feel when you’re inside of my storm, if things still seem so black, white and simple then. Where are your platitudes? Where are your scripture verses? Where are your band aids now?

Yes, I might really want to hurt you at this point. But if you’re in a position like Joe, once you’re in there, you won’t be defeated by my monsters, and you’ll make your way to me, and take my hand. And it may not happen instantly, but having someone in there with me might just help to quiet the voices, and clear the black fog, and start the healing process.

With this interpretation, I want to be careful. Yes, hurt people hurt people. But you don’t have to let yourself get abused. You also don’t need to follow someone around trying to save them. I’m not sure how I feel about the imagery of literally trying to tie 22 up and force her to listen. I think there are times when this is necessary. There are times when people have had to do this to me, so that I don’t hurt myself and others. The trauma of literally being strapped down and tied, not really sure of what was going on, is something I’m continuing to process. But yeah, sometimes force is necessary.

Sometimes, someone will drag you into their trauma, and you might not take it on the chin like Joe, and you really might get caught up in their pain and be unable to get out. But less malevolently, I think this is a wonderful metaphor for how letting someone in is probably the only way to really get help. Having someone who’s strong enough and able to be present in someone else’s pain, to share it and offer a way out, is the only way. For some bouts of depression or anxiety, the storm is so thick and strong and loud and powerful that you don’t know which way is up, let alone which way leads out. Let alone having the energy to push through the wind and dust and ignore the voices. This is such an accurate portrayal that I literally almost cried. Me and the people around me become so disappointed and annoyed when I fall into a depression state, wondering why I can’t try hard enough to avoid it. But when it comes, even if I can see it from a mile away, this is what it feels like. A storm of red bees in my head that are on fire and screaming things about me, pushing flashbacks from my past and telling me what a failure I am. Sure, someone could go on to me about my choices and self-control and self-care, etc. And yes, when I’m not in a storm state, I’m now actively trying to build shelters and plans to bunker down so that I don’t cause too much damage when times like that come. And they are getting fewer and farther between, on this side of the SAD time frame. And maybe the duration and severity is getting less. But I still get those grand mals, and it doesn’t matter what I’ve done to prepare, they still feel exactly the same. The only thing I can do is try to take advantage of any breaks in the storm to muster up whatever energy I can to take one step in the right direction before the clouds descend again. It’s definitely not as simple as “using my tools” or “accessing my supports.” All of that is for less intense episodes. When the big one comes, the best I can do is hold on, stay in bed for as long as I need, and fight the accusations of failure and inadequacy that come in the aftermath, either from myself or those around me. Dealing with the aftermath and bouncing back after an episode is something that is becoming a little easier. I’m a lot quicker to recover, but it still takes a while to get over the big ones. I’m actually going through one right now. I’m experiencing one of those breaks in the eye of the storm, but the last few days it’s like I’ve been slowly slipping down a snowy slope, holding on to a tiny little branch sticking out of the ground. I held on with all my might, but I still fell. But when I saw the next little branch, I grabbed on to it, and now I’m trying to hold on and not make anything worse. Usually, I would just tell myself that I’ve already fallen this far, there’s no point in trying to keep from falling further. And even worse: if I do one self-destructive thing, it opens the floodgates for all the others, and they become harder and harder to fight.

The very rare times when I’ve had someone in my life who could simply take my hand and sit with me through it until the storm passed were surreal. Usually, I’m alone, and yes, it often passes on its own, but it takes a long time, and I wake up to all the damage I’ve caused around me. I think one of the things that was missing was 22 coming to terms with the destruction she caused there, because that’s real, and having someone to help you clean up the mess is also such a privilege not afforded to many, and definitely not as much as needed. I’m learning to let God be the one to come into my storm and help me. Of course, as a Christian I’d argue that He’s the only one who can do it without sustaining His own damage. Sometimes He’s the only one I have. But he also clears the way for me to let others in without hurting them. He gives me the protection to be there for others without hurting myself.

So, yeah. I call Lost Soul Mega Boss on anyone who tells me that if I just do one thing or the other, things will get better for me. Those storms will keep coming no matter what I do. What I could really use is help with building my shelter, destroying as little as possible, and rebuilding when I’m finally free. And maybe there’s someone in your life who needs that from you. I know there’s lots in my life who’ve I’ve tried to wrestle into doing what I know is good for them. How about both of us just don’t do that.

So, thank you Soul, for being one more voice in my storm that reminds me that I’m not alone, and that I can let God and my trusted people into my storm to help me.

Thanks for Stopping by!

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“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him.”
~ Romans 15:13

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