Spoilers?: There are technically spoilers in this. I discuss crucial themes and I mention scenes vaguely, however I do not explicitly break down the plot.
This is best read after watching Soul but if you need a push to watch this movie, this may be the post for you.
Christmas Day is always a relaxing day for me. This year was no different considering the downsizing of festivities. I found myself watching the film Soul, expecting nothing less than marvelous from what Pixar does best – the existential.
Inside Out had a similar feel. The overall message we got from Inside Out was that we need to let ourselves feel sadness and work through all of our emotions to experience true happiness. I think it ties in with the ideas of Soul perfectly. Pixar gave a phenomenal Christmas drop.
I am sure there are already numerous interpretation videos and articles out by now but I will share my take through 3 main lessons I was reminded of:
Lesson 1: How to Really Be Happy + A word on Black stories
Film scenes I thought about here: Joe reminiscing at the piano. Dorothea Williams speaking outside of the venue about the fish looking for the ocean, in the ocean.
We are all seeking happiness. We all want to “make it”, finally having things figured out and “living our best life”. But what if living your best life is actually your current life? As Dorothea expresses in the film – what if you are looking for the ocean…in the ocean? What if you could be mindful of how happy you are already are? There are so many emotions we can feel more deeply, if we just notice them more.
For some, “your best life” is the one you have been living since childhood: Did you ever get sad as a kid on the last day of school because that’s how much fun you were having? That was how much you loved your classmates and teacher? As we learned in Inside Out, feeling sadness in life is a necessary component of understanding happiness – it gives you perspective. Did you ever have a tight-knit friend group, constantly sharing belly laughs when you were together? Did you ever get to go on an incredibly fun road trip or distant vacation spot? Childhood may have been a very happy time, and we may not have fully known it.
Graduations, formals, weddings – these are all cornerstone joyful experiences in our lives. Yet, we sometimes cross these milestones, barely taking them in, charging towards life’s next coveted landmark. I would analogize it to going on an amazing European vacation and stopping in Rome. Instead of leisurely taking in the sights, smells, and sounds – you rush to get to all the tourist attractions for photos on your social media feeds. We live but sometimes we don’t really live. We sleepwalk.
Soul is in many ways a Black story – fun fact: Kemp Power, co-director of Soul, is the first African-American to co-direct a Disney animated feature. I like to acknowledge firsts like this because they matter. These firsts tell Black people everywhere that someone has paved the way; someone has made space for us. As this story is told through the soul of a Black man, I reflect on other Black stories. When I watch films on Black history in America – whether during slavery, segregation, or present-day hardships – I see an underlying resilience and will to live. I know the word resilience is thrown around a lot, it is a crux of wellness. I will bring in my definition of resilience (I think it’s important to take “buzz words” and redefine them for yourself, in your own words – to make sense of them and how they make you feel). What we call resilience in my eyes, is the ability to redirect to this baseline: There is a life to live and it can be beautiful in every moment. There are people who were born and died in bondage. Yet, was every moment of their life filled with sorrow? Or were they able to rejoice in something? In each other, in friendships, in flowers, in blue skies, faith in a higher power – anything. Whether it is, Remember the Titans or The Help, I see the sentiment of choosing joy through injustice, in every story of Black hardship.
Important disclaimer: This message is not to take away from the very real mental health struggles that people experience. Nor is it to belittle the role of trauma in people’s life experiences. However, my hope will always be that people who have experienced this in their lives, will eventually recover and move forward with life. Sounds like a wellness cliché but I mean it, as always.
December 21st was the day that Black people were supposed to acquire superpowers. The punchline, for those that missed it, is that we already have superpowers. It is a superpower to inherit the resilience of your ancestors – the ability to find joy in hardship, lead change, and build community in every generation.
Lesson #2: The Impact of Our Inner Voices
Film scenes I thought about here: 22’s mind storm as a lost soul. Joe speaking to his mother through 22.
The external voices or statements from the people we surround ourselves with become our inner voice. One of my inner motivating voices is my mom’s. I can remember her telling me how brilliant she thought I was. She was always proud of my achievements. She was at every assembly if I won “Student of the Month” in elementary school and elated alongside me when I graduated undergrad. Her support was consistent. How different would my life had been if my inner voice was discouraging voices from my mom? Or other members of my primary support system? Through the experiences of the character 22, Soul spoke to education and upbringing. What happens when we push kids or “people looking for their spark” to the point of insecurity?
If we want people to be well and realize their potential, we need to match our words and actions to that intention. This requires a depth of compassion and awareness that many do not recognize. It calls us to be mindful of what we say to each other. We need to always let the people we love know that we believe in them and apologize when we get it wrong.
Lesson #3: Vulnerability Draws People Closer
Film scenes I thought about here: 22’s speech at the barber shop. Joe speaking to his mother through 22.
The final theme I noticed was vulnerability. I am guilty of closing myself off – I often take a long time to let people in on the struggles I am facing in my life. I try to work through things on my own. I think it’s okay to have a balance of privacy and vulnerability in life however, Soul reminded me how important it is to be open. Your loved ones cannot read your mind. (Read that again!). They cannot always figure out why you are making certain decisions or what you are going through inside. We have to communicate that with them. The moments where 22 divulged more than Joe would have normally shared resulted in people Joe thought he knew well, pressing closer to him. From the barbershop to his relationship with his mother, vulnerability helped Joe have his epiphany about what actually mattered in his life. (P.S. Epiphany is my favourite song/scene on the soundtrack.)
Is there someone in your life you should open up to more? Are there things you are experiencing that you do not think anyone else would understand? I will paraphrase a meditation exercise that I heard from Dr. Shauna Shapiro, Clinical Psychologist and world-renowned mindfulness expert. It is on how to respond to our negative feelings and emotions:
- Recognize what you are feeling.
- Think of what you would tell someone you love if they were experiencing the same thing.
- Think about all the other people who are experiencing/feeling the same thing that you are.
This exercise is a reminder that when you love someone, you would offer them words of support through what they are feeling. This is the same way our loved ones want to help us, if we choose to let them in. And this was displayed beautifully in Soul.
Another layer to the exercise is remembering that there is someone in the world who has felt how you are feeling. The more vulnerable we become, the more likely someone you encounter will admit that they have felt the same way as you before. This is an aspect of this blog that I love – hearing from people who have read them that have felt or thought the same way as me. Having people open up to me who otherwise would not have is an experience I do not take for granted.
Conclusion: Animated Films are for Adults
I don’t know if kids will gravitate towards this movie as much as Pixar’s others. But I think that’s okay. Animation is not something that always has to be targeted towards children. I think adults needed to see this one after the year we had. It reminded us how simple life can be through it all. Studio Ghibli and several anime shows figured that out years ago so this is not a hot take. Still, the monopoly that Disney, a children’s brand, has on the market of animated moviemaking has led many to believe that adults cannot gain something from this medium. However, that kid you have always been is still within the person you are today. That kid never has to go away. They are right there inside of you. You can be the person that is drawn to the fictional yet relatable characters and crisp visuals that only can be achieved from pure imagination.
I hope this piece helped you take even more from this incredible film. Thank you for reading!
As always, this is a reminder to take a screen break if you need. Book, walk, meditate – whatever you choose.
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