A Muslim Review of Pixar’s Soul
What happens when you die? What is the soul? What is the meaning of life? These are just a few of the deep philosophical questions posed in Disney’s new movie Soul. Here are my thoughts on it as a Muslim parent.
Disney decided to release Soul on it’s streaming service during the holidays and it seems as though it couldn’t have come at a more needed time, with many still reeling from a year of tragedy, loss and hopelessness. As a religious person it’s easy to fall back on the notions of truth that I was taught as a young person. I was able to get through the turmoil of this year by relying on those notions and I’m very grateful for it. But now that I’m a father of young children, these notions are constantly tested and scrutinised by inquisitive minds. My kids often ask me questions I find really difficult to answer, and this year was full of them. So while watching Soul with them I could see the gears turning in their little minds as the story unfolded.
Soul tells the story of Joe Gardner, a jazz musician, who feels stuck in his job as an elementary school teacher. He dreams of being part of a bonafide jazz band. One day he gets an opportunity to prove himself, only to fall through a manhole and die! But with those dreams unfulfilled he isn’t ready yet to leave this world so he resists heading in to the big white light and gets transported to ‘The Great Before’, the place new souls are prepared before coming to Earth. Once there he’s given the task of mentoring a new soul named 22, before she can be born on Earth.
The story moves elegantly and quickly, and does a clean job of explaining the rules of its world. The animation is rich, the best work Pixar has ever done, and the score is a lovely mix of jazz and ethereal synth. As with all Pixar films, it has a strong emotional centre that propels all its complicated ideas forwards. It goes without saying that the storytelling is on point.
Though the film isn’t rooted in any one particular religious tradition, it takes inspiration from the Abrahamic religions and also Buddhism, whilst weaving in a bit of modern science fiction for good measure. ‘The Great Before’ reminded me a bit about what Muslims believe about souls. In Islam we’re taught about the place in pre-existence where all the souls were gathered to take an oath of their belief in Allah, before being sent down to Earth. We’re also taught about how kindred souls gravitated towards each other whilst in that realm. Though it’s not represented exactly like that in Soul, I can’t help but notice the similarities. However, there isn’t any reference to God, or a Creator, though there are some kind of caretaker angel type creatures that govern the afterlife. This wasn’t troubling to me, Pixar didn’t explicitly deny the place for God in the world they crafted, rather they focused on the mechanics of the process of living and dying, which as Muslims we know is largely taken care of by those Angels that Allah has commanded to do so. This way, at least for me, there’s less confusion in explaining Allah’s role to my kids, and He isn’t depicted in a way not befitting of Him.
Meditation makes an appearance too! It’s the means by which some of the characters are able to leave their bodies for the astral plane so it’s less about mindfulness here and more a means to further the story, but references are also made to flow states and being ‘in the zone’ which was great to see. Meditation, from all the religions and traditions play an important part in helping human beings to find inner peace and Pixar touches on a few of these important benefits in the film.
For obvious reasons (being a kids movie for one) there isn’t any negative aspect to this rendition of the afterlife, infact there’s only one brief mention of Hell, a funny moment where Joe asks if that’s where he is. For the most part Pixar keeps the tone light and optimistic. There are no real enemies or badguys, except for the ‘lost souls’ who are actually a metaphor for those souls that have lost their purpose for living. This is the best thing about Soul, the way it uses the finite nature of life to make a celebration of all the little things worth enjoying. It doesn’t focus too heavily on dogma or theology to tell the most important part of its story: that to live life fully and for others is one of the most beautiful things about living.
Sometimes as a Muslim parent I get caught up in the messaging in the films and shows my kids watch. I want them to have a healthy understanding of spirituality, of life’s meaning and what our beautiful religion teaches. Soul tells a really moving story about characters going through a deeply spiritual crisis in a way that I think will probably enhance the way my kids understand the afterlife and the way they should live their lives. You can watch Soul on Disney+ and if you’re interested in Islamic meditation then the app we created is available on the Google Playstore and Apple App store.