I don’t mean to be contrarian, but when you don’t love popular shows and movies as much as everyone else does and then post about it online – I did the same thing with Hamilton and Shtisel (gasp!) – you are sure to rile people up. So prepare to be riled up if you don’t want to hear anything negative about Pixar’s recently released “Soul.” “Soul” had many lovely parts to it; wonderful animation, great soundtrack, and beautiful, thought-provoking moments.
Perhaps what I appreciated most about it was that a major animated film was tackling such a topic. We’re living in a world where just a few years ago, when a boy fell into a gorilla pit in the zoo and the gorilla was put down to save the boy, numerous people were up in arms that a boy’s life was prioritized over an animal’s. Around this same time, I read a study which reported that a disturbingly high percentage of people would save their pet over a human stranger’s life. I believe these troubling phenomena are due to the fact that there is a growing number of people who don’t believe in the existence of a soul. So I am grateful that “Soul” has normalized this idea that we’ve all got one.
Souls existing in a realm before earth is certainly a Jewish idea, and it was neat to see this concept played out in the movie. However, the idea that a soul could start out broken or imperfect (a major premise of the movie) doesn’t make sense to me and is completely against the Jewish conception of a neshama. Everyday in our morning blessings we say:
Elohai neshamah shenatata bi tehorah. “My God, the soul that you breathed into me is pure.” Berakhot 60b
In Judaism, the soul is a spark of the Divine. It is not possible for it to be complicated or broken in its pre-world state. It is pure and perfect. My next issue with the movie is that “the hereafter” is a terrifying place for our protagonist, Joe Gardner. He spends most of the movie running from it. While a discussion of souls is a wonderful thing, making the World to Come into a dreadful place sends the wrong message to viewers. (I had a similar issue with The Good Place.) We’re all going to end up there. I’d much rather watch a movie that frames the World to Come in a hopeful and inspiring way.
Perhaps my biggest let down from the movie was that it didn’t actually feel that deep. Calling a movie “Soul” is a tall order. I kind of expected my soul to feel a spark from some wisdom or realization or spiritual epiphany, but that never quite happened, though I understand the writers attempted it. So I left disappointed.
Things that actually spark my soul revolve around Jewish wisdom that also contain universal human truths. Realizations that the good and the bad are all ultimately good, messages of unity, and witnessing Godly attributes of altruism and lifting up those who are low and struggling are all themes that ignite my soul. Take a moment to watch this clip below and let me know if you felt it in your soul. The visuals are certainly not as impressive as what Pixar made – but a short film like the one below is far more soulful to me.
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I did like Soul, but I guess I wasn’t expecting it to be anything other than typical Hollywood secular humanism with a bit of mystical window-dressing, so maybe I had lower expectations than you did. I can’t really imagine how someone could tell a story about perfect souls being perfect together; stories are based around conflicts, which come from imperfections. I saw the film as a parable about seizing the day, rather than any kind of serious mystical text. As for Heaven being a bad place, I think the point is that Joe doesn’t want to go there because he has stuff he still wants to do on Earth rather than because Heaven is bad per se, which is not so far from Judaism – we are supposed to find meaning on Earth and savour our time here, even if we acknowledge (as Joe could not) that there is a time when we will have to leave and go beyond.