Column: Disney Pixar’s “Soul” has a perspective toward mindfulness and purpose

Disney released it's feature film Soul on it's streaming platform Disney+ on Christmas Day of 2020. Photo courtesy of Disney+

By Christina Cannady | Photographer

Disney Pixar’s latest release “Soul” premiered on Disney+ this past Christmas. The film provided a wholesome and insightful perspective on the meaning of life and the importance of mindfulness. With 2020 being a memory everyone wishes they could forget, “Soul” offered some sweet relief at the end it.

“Soul” follows the journey of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a jazz pianist working as a middle school band instructor in New York. After some great news and an unfortunate accident, Joe finds himself stuck in the afterlife after a near-death-experience. Upon realizing he’s going to have a difficult time getting back to Earth, he teams up with 22 (Tina Fey), a soul stuck in a fictitious place called “The Great Before.”

Disney wanted to explore more mature, adult themes like death, lack of purpose, anxiety and depression. Although we’ve seen similar themes tackled in films like “Inside Out” and “Frozen II,” “Soul” brings a fresh and relatable perspective that Disney’s older audience can connect with.

Bullard junior Katy Dulany shared her thoughts about the film and how it differed from her expectations.

“I think I went in expecting a movie very similar to ‘Inside Out’ and was originally disappointed that it wasn’t as exciting or funny as ‘Inside Out.’ Yet, the more I sat with this movie, the more I realized how it was really quite artful and deep,” Dulany said.

“Soul” addresses the burden we carry as humans to try and find purpose and meaning for why we are here. The main character and first Black lead in a Disney Pixar film, Joe Gardner, has been waiting for his big break to be a professional jazz musician. After receiving the call that will grant him this future, he dies.

Co-writer and co-director of “Soul,” Kemp Powers, explains the story-making process of the film on the season premiere of “Inside Pixar” available on Disney+.

“Feeling cheated by the universe, Joe refuses to die. He’s willing to do anything to fight his way back to Earth to get a second chance at the life that he feels like he’s earned,” Powers said in the premiere.

Susanna Doss, master social worker and senior clinician at the Baylor Counseling Center, also shared her thoughts and insight about the film. She said the filmmakers took on a heavy responsibility by carrying the theme of life’s purpose.

“[It] is very pertinent to college, because one has to declare a major, there is a lot riding financially, expectations, all of that — creating this life, this future for oneself,” Doss said.

Since Joe felt so cheated by the universe, he decided he was going to cheat his way back to Earth. He ends up in a space called “The Great Before,” which is where souls are born and develop their personalities and “sparks” until they’re ready to go to Earth. Here he meets 22, a soul who has never found a spark or reason to go to Earth.

“She thinks there is nothing good about going to Earth. We have this situation where we have a soul who doesn’t want to die being stuck with a soul who doesn’t want to live,” Powers said.

Joe becomes her mentor and sees this as his ticket back. Accompanied by 22, Joe looks at his life laid out before him and believes he never amounted to anything. He spent his life reaching for a dream that he never had the chance to live and thinks this as an utter failure.

“When I saw this, I thought how very true, this feels like life, right? We can often get hung up in this very black or white thinking. So, in mental health … one of the main cognitive errors is this idea of all or nothing thinking. Something has to be true or it isn’t true. You’re wrong, you failed,” Doss said.

Doss said how impressed she was at Disney’s ability to visualize concepts that didn’t seem capable of being visualized. The elements of anxiety and depression in 22’s character, she said, expressed a beautiful and profound understanding of mental illness.

Dulany said she appreciated the motif of mindfulness that was present throughout the film, especially in 22.

“I think what I loved about the movie was how 22 found joy in the very little things in life and how it was the simple moments that reminded her of being alive,” Dulany said. “I think as humans, it really is relationships that are our spark and connecting with our experience as humans through other people, or nature, or music, or whatever it might be.”

Doss said finding little “sparks,” being present and learning to enjoy the simple parts of life are exactly what she often talks about in therapy sessions.

“Find the things that bring us joy, that are healthy for us. Capitalize on them on a day-to-day basis. Do the next right thing, make the next right choice. Focus on what is needed at that moment that feels healthy, which creates a purpose towards the end of life,” Doss said. “We get to look back like [Joe] did at that point and say, what a beautiful life I’ve lived and created. I followed my sparks.”

Doss also shared how using our senses can be an effective way to ground ourselves when feeling overwhelmed or anxious, like when 22 uses this method in the film when she is feeling overwhelmed and uses her surroundings and senses to bring herself back to the present.

“This is [a mindfulness practice] that we use a lot. You’re counting backwards with your senses; you get to choose how you want to do it … I like to do five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell and then one thing you can taste,” Doss said.

By doing this, Doss said you’re holding your mind by the hand, almost like a child and bringing it to the present moment. Once you feel grounded, then you can begin to evaluate the emotions that felt overwhelming.

“Soul” is an ambitious existential film that leaves its audience with themes worth contemplating. It highlights how sometimes the most simple or even imperfect parts of life are what make it worthwhile. It emphasizes the importance of mindfulness and being present while creating a low-pressure perspective on purpose.

Instead of worrying about the future and what it all means, it’s imperative that humans slow down and reflect on the miracle that is life. Live and be present in every moment because you never know when it might end.