“I’m just afraid that if I died today, then my life would’ve amounted to nothing.” That’s what Joe Gardner says to his mom as the third act of Pixar’s Soul commences. It’s a heavy line for a children’s movie, but what else could one expect from director Pete Docter who brought us the heart-wrenching love story in Up or the emotional nuance of Inside Out? In Soul, Docter tackles the meaning of life, centering the film on a character who is experiencing an identity crisis with which many modern individuals can resonate.
Joe Gardner is a middle school band teacher who has fallen short of the successful jazz career he has always hoped for. As his mom encourages him to settle into a full-time job with a pension and health insurance, Joe can’t stop the itch towards building his life upon jazz, even if that means scrounging for gigs and living paycheck to paycheck. Joe finally seems to catch his big break when the jazz icon Dorothea Williams offers him a gig. Just as he’s preparing for his big night, disaster strikes. After falling through a manhole and ending up in a coma, Joe finds himself in the Great Before, where preexistent souls go to obtain their personalities and “sparks” before birth. While there, he encounters an exhibit of his own memories, depicting the way he spent his life. The exhibit terrifies and depresses Joe. He sees the collection of mundane life events and missed opportunities and becomes determined that he will get back to Earth so he can “finally start his life” by launching his music career. Being human was not enough to make Joe matter; only being a musician could make him significant. Joe is convinced that because he has not been able to live out his purpose, his life has been utterly meaningless.
Towards the end of the film, Joe finally gets back to Earth and is able to play his dream gig! The crowd goes wild, and Joe finally has hope for a career that matches his passion. And yet, he still doesn’t feel quite right. He has at last achieved his dream, but a feeling of incompletion and angst still lingers.
Soul shows Joe in the “malaise” that Charles Taylor describes in his book A Secular Age. Viewers can certainly empathize with Joe, as we too often feel the weight of unease and listlessness that permeates the West. Taylor describes three aspects of the malaise: “1) the sense of the fragility of meaning [and the] search for an over-arching significance; 2) a felt flatness of our attempts to solemnize the crucial moments of passage in our lives; and 3) the utter emptiness of the ordinary.”
Throughout the movie, Joe is certain that music is his “spark,” his reason for living. Before achieving his dream gig, Joe tells himself that only success will satisfy, and he just has to hold out for that one moment. Yet, when the moment comes, satisfaction still eludes him. Meaning is fragile. His life feels flat. One could call Joe’s moment a mid-life crisis, but his experience is not limited to the middle-aged.
Joe’s malaise mirrors that of real-world musicians who are open about their own search for meaning. In the documentary Miss Americana, Taylor Swift gives a raw description of the emptiness she wrestled with after winning “Album of the Year” in back-to-back years. “I remember thinking afterward. Oh God, that was all you wanted. That was all you focused on. You get to the mountaintop, and you think, Oh God. What now?”
British jazz-pop star Jamie Cullum responds to the malaise with “Twentysomething,” a song that is simultaneously upbeat and sorrowful. After describing all the different things he’s pursued to find meaning, he ends the song with this lyrical shrug:
Love ain’t the answer. Nor is work.
The truth eludes me so much it hurts.
But I’m still having fun, and I guess that’s the key.
I’m a twentysomething and I’ll keep bein’ me.
How does one break out of the malaise? Is the answer to shrug, have fun, and “just keep being me?” How does one even find the real “me” in the first place? Let’s look at how Soul answers those questions before turning to another Pixar film’s response.
Soul’s big twist is the discovery that one’s “spark” was never one’s solitary “purpose” in the first place. As he plays the piano and begins to cry, Joe realizes that the things he has dismissed as “regular old living” are actually the sparks that make life worthwhile. A helicopter leaf spinning through the sunlight. Quality time with dad. The feeling of the ocean on your toes. As the montage continues, the perspective begins to zoom out. We see the entirety of New York City. Then Planet Earth. And then, the cosmos. Docter is clearly aiming at the third aspect of Taylor’s “malaise,” trying to show the utter beauty of the ordinary in contrast to the feeling of its utter emptiness. It’s a quiet and beautiful climax to the movie. And yet, there is no justification for why these things genuinely matter other than that Joe has rediscovered a feeling of their significance. One could imagine a darker or more cynical movie, showing the same shots to a more dissonant soundtrack, highlighting the absurdity of it all. If we are merely a speck in the universe, then are not our joyful moments at the beach utterly meaningless?
In his book You are Not Your Own, Alan Noble points out that for most secular thinkers, meaning is just something that people feel, not a transcendent reality. “If we embrace our feelings as ‘meaningful to us,’ and avoid thinking about them as a useful myth, we might be able to get many of the social and interpersonal benefits.” For many who reject the existence of transcendent reality, meaning is merely a subjective tool that humans use to make life more bearable. Despite Soul’s valuable message—that meaning does not come from one singular obsession that defines the “real you”—the film fails to deeply address the problem of meaning that plagues our age. The malaise can’t fully be cured by stopping and smelling the roses. It is actually Pixar’s original film, Toy Story, that speaks into our crisis of meaning in a way that corresponds with the Christian story.
In Toy Story, Buzz Lightyear is convinced that he is a Space Ranger whose mission is to protect the galaxy from the Emperor Zurg. Despite Woody’s consistent reminders that he is merely a toy, Buzz is confident in his identity as a Space Ranger. It is not until he sees a TV commercial featuring himself while in captivity at the evil Sid’s house that Buzz discovers the truth. He leaps off a stair railing trying to fly but crashes down to the ground, finally aware that he is not who he thought he was. As Randy Newman’s mournful “Sailing No More” plays in the background, we see a disillusioned Buzz begin to question the value of his existence.
Several scenes later, Buzz is depressed to the point of nihilism. As Woody asserts their need to get back to Andy’s house, Buzz mumbles, “Andy’s house. Sid’s house. What’s the difference?” Just like Joe in Soul, Buzz’s identity crisis causes him to see life as flat and void of purpose. He does not seem to care that Sid wants to destroy him. He woefully whispers, “I’m just a stupid, little, insignificant toy.” Woody then delivers the core message of the film, trying to snap Buzz out of his malaise. He asserts that being a toy is an even more noble calling than that of a Space Ranger. “In that house over there’s a kid who thinks you’re the greatest. And it’s not because you’re a Space Ranger, pal. It’s because you’re a toy. You’re his toy.” Buzz takes pause. He looks at the bottom of his foot where he sees the name that defines him. Not Buzz Lightyear. Not “Space Ranger.” Andy. In this, Buzz discovers his significance. Belonging to Andy gives Buzz purpose, and his identity crisis stops in its tracks.
Rowan Williams describes how belonging to God grounds humans in our true selves:
You have an identity, not because you have invented one, or because you have a little hard core of selfhood that is unchanged, but because you have a witness of who you are. What you don’t understand or see, the bits of yourself you can’t pull together in a convincing story, are all held in a single gaze of love. You don’t have to work out and finalize who you are, and have been; you don’t have to settle the absolute truth of your history or story. In the eyes of the presence that never goes away, all that you have been and are is still present and real; it is held together in that unifying gaze.
In a confusing world where one’s core purpose is elusive, it’s not the small pleasures of life that give us true validation. It’s the loving gaze of God.
Obviously, one cannot stretch the analogy of Andy and God too far. Andy is both flawed and fickle, an imperfect owner who will not always love his toys well. As the series progresses, Andy moves off to college and leaves the toys behind (praise God that Jesus never graduates from us!). Yet the significance of Woody and Buzz finding their identity in Andy cannot be ignored. Andy does not teach us what it means to be God, but his toys can help us understand what it means to belong to God.
Toy Story and Soul have similar conclusions. In the end your identity is not defined by your career or your accomplishments. It’s something external to you, the sheer gift of living as a human (or as a toy) that grounds you in a self. Yet it is Toy Story (ironically the one that does not depict a spiritual realm) that better reflects the Christian understanding of life’s meaning. Buzz does not need to create his value or identity. His identity is written on his foot. Despair is not the answer, because living for Andy actually means something.
Noble puts it this way: “If we are not our own but belong to Christ, then meaning is not a story we make up to dramatize our lives. Meaning inheres in creation and in our experiences, and when we rightly interpret the world, even if only in glimpses, we partake of a truth that transcends us.” Thus, the incredible meaning depicted in Soul’s epiphany sequence is real! Those events from Joe’s life matter, not merely because of his own experience with them but because of the reality of truth, goodness, and beauty, which all come from God.
Simple pleasures are indeed soaked with meaning, but that meaning is not generated by one’s own subjective experience of the pleasure. Rather, the meaning of the sun flowing through the trees or the joy of playing music with one’s father comes from God himself. Our world is not saturated with meaning because we choose to see it as so. Our world is saturated with meaning because it was formed by a Creator who owns it and loves it. Thus, we should live with an abundant gratitude for the world’s pleasures. As Noble notes, Christians are to “bear witness to the essential goodness of life, which can only be essentially good if it is grounded in God.”
Buzz is not just a toy. He is a toy who belongs to Andy. It is in belonging to someone who loves us that our identity is found. The utter confusion and existential angst of the modern self cannot be solved by helicopter leaves and family memories alone. It is the loving gaze of God and his name etched into our very being that provides the “spark” of the Christian life. Christians must be people who allow the gifts of jazz, the summer breeze, and laughter with friends to remind us of the giver, the one who has written his name on our foot.
Joe’s epiphany can encourage us to remember and enjoy the beauty of life, but it must ultimately point us to the truth of Buzz’s epiphany. We belong to Someone who loves us. The meaning our hearts crave is found in Him.