Since all the emotion-representative characters in Inside Out are necessarily one-dimensional, the story suffers, ironically, from a lack of character complexity. The fact that this happens reveals a hole in atomistic scientific understanding: by demystifying a large process—such as the human mind—and breaking it down into smaller, simpler systems, we seem to lose something essential.
The inherently structural way that Inside Out’s story falls flat exemplifies this: the movie is more effective as a flawed educational exposition than a special, deeply human story. We watch the interplay of the concepts of sadness, joy, and anger. To the extent that these personalities are stand-ins for supposedly universal voices inside our minds, the characters are utterly forgettable.
The plot showcases what can go wrong when our emotions get out of whack, but after peeling back the humorous facade of the adventure, the primary takeaway is that a myopic obsession with being always joyful can be unhealthy and that sadness isn’t just a meaningless negative emotion (how very American of a discernment!).
In 2020, we got Soul from Docter—a story about an unhappy music teacher, Joe, whose true passion is to play jazz piano professionally. Joe gets into an accident and basically dies, entering a purgatorial intermediate space. But, unwilling to die (which in the movie’s world is represented by walking into the “Great Beyond”), by some fluke he ends up in the “Great Before”, where unborn souls are prepared for Earth-life.
The metaphysics of the Great Before are fascinating in the transparent way it tackles modern unease about determinism and purpose. Each unborn soul must find a “spark” in order to earn a badge qualifying it to be born. The central tension of the movie revolves around figuring out the true nature of a spark: initially it seems to be a soul’s purpose, but in the end we learn that it’s actually a soul’s will to live.
This speaks to the modern American predicament on several levels: the struggle and simultaneous pressure to have a passion career, the anxiety that there is no individual life purpose outside some kind of frantic humanism, and the abandonment of any spiritual foundation for metaphysics (and thus the feeling that we can and must make it up). Only 21st century Americans are worrying this hard about finding meaning against the impossibility of making our dreams come true—the world here (in the U.S.) is unprecedented in its individualism, capitalistic paradoxes, and spiritual confusion.
Though Pete Docter is explicitly a Christian [source], in a sense we all are kind of Christian if we grew up in the West because of the massive inheritance baked into our very intuition. Tom Holland (the author! not the littlest Spiderman) has written in his book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (2019) that
To live in a western country is to live in a society still utterly saturated by Christian concepts and assumptions.
As Charles Taylor has also argued in his book A Secular Age (2007), to live agnostically in the modern Western world is to live with a phantom morality and an unplaceable yearning for meaning that is larger than life. When our ethics and metaphysics become untethered from any concrete system of belief, a space opens up for confusion, inexplicable dissatisfaction, and obsessions with whatever we currently define as worldly success. We feel we live in a contradictory world that is not suited for us, yet as a society we continuously struggle to bend the world to our needs, and we make movies like Soul to justify the effort—all as if to say: don’t worry, even though it feels like we are destroying ourselves, modern life is worth it!
There are a host of contemporary speculative fiction TV shows exploring similar questions as Soul: The Good Place (2016-2020), Forever (2018), Russian Doll (2019-), After Life (2019-2022). The metaphysics of life outside life seems to have solidly moved into the realm of complete creative freedom, while remaining interesting because of our deep-seated existential dread. Many of these shows take a Michael Shur-esque humorous approach to these topics, which highlights the absurdity of the entire situation of Life After Death and usually ends up coming to some humanistic, consolatory conclusion.
And as consolation only, Soul succeeds, though even its primary takeaway about purpose comes across a bit muddied. There is a character in the Great Before named “22” who has been for a long time unable to find her spark, and thus blocked from being born on Earth. This is resolved when 22 experiences the beauty of nature for the first time after breaking into Earth with Joe, and as a result of the whole thing Joe also gets a second try at life.
After reflecting on the film, my friend texted me:
Stories like this really highlight to me the cultural shift of humanism where there is nothing to attain beyond average human flourishing. 22 was excited to live partly because of the beauty of the trees and sun and maple leaf [i.e.] just for the sake of the beauty [...] it just feels flat to me.
The resolution of the plot basically says that the answer to the question of meaning and purpose is 1. beauty (nature) and 2. humanism (helping each other out, the common human good, etc.). Docter has no interest in [source] and also realistically probably couldn’t make the story about the existence of some higher moral, all-knowing creator entity in the Abrahamic sense, so Soul’s story is essentially the empty space of what he can’t explicitly propound. In other words, this is what’s left for us when we have no spiritual grounding: metaphysical make-up land and a confused humanism as substitute religion. The story falls flat because it is attempting to say something profound about life but it just reiterates empty principles we tell ourselves as a society: that we should help our friends, and that “beauty” is the ultimate thing that makes being human special.
A good story doesn’t need to say anything about life, death, or metaphysics in order to be effective, but Soul’s failure lies in the fact that it acts like it is saying something about these things—in fact its entire plot hinges on the presumption that its conclusion is one that’s needed and worth making—and yet it is not.
As with Inside Out, Soul’s weakness is simultaneously its strength and its popular appeal. It’s all too satisfying to see our contemporary intuitions play out, flawed as they may be.
Note: As of April 6, 2022 I still haven’t seen Turning Red so forgive me if it was wildly good and the beginning of this post sounded too harsh.