Soul: Narcissism vs. Gratitude

Welcome back to the page and thanks for being here! I really love having this outlet for nerding out on breaking down screenplays, and if you’re reading this, you’re likely very much the same. I love finding people to talk all things screenwriting with so please feel free to comment and let me know if you want to add anything to the discussion here or have a different take!

I mentioned last time that I had watched Wonder Woman 1984 on Christmas Day when it released and, naturally, I also checked out Soul over on Disney+ when it debuted that same day.

I was really surprised when both films ended up having the same central theme: Gratitude. It felt very apt for stories that people would be watching on Christmas Day and in the middle of a pandemic when it’s really hard to find a silver lining in life after so much loss. While the central theme was ultimately the same, the approach was very different.

In Wonder Woman 1984, the theme of gratitude was filtered through the idea of “truth”. Truth is beautiful, it’s enough, the movie proclaimed. People wanted more, more, more, while only seeing all of the things they don’t have. The protagonist in Soul, Joe, has the same problem. He realizes this after one of the “Jerrys” laughs at him for the idea of a person needing a “purpose” and again when a musician he admires, Dorothea, tells him a story about someone who thinks life begins when something “big” happens to kickstart it.

For Diana in WW84, she must face extreme ends of antagonistic forces (negative antagonist Max Lord and positive antagonist Steve Trevor) to realize that she’s not living but living in the past. I do a quick breakdown of the different levels of antagonist in the WW84 breakdown that you can read here. In Soul, Joe is similarly focused on life from his own perspective and not worried about anyone else. If you’re over 21, do a shot every time Joe dismisses the character 22 and their experience on Earth. It starts slow, but the end of Act 2 is relentless and you will be wrecked! He can’t accept that anyone loves life the way he does, but he’s not even living life! Where Diana is focused on the past, Joe is waiting for something better coming in the future. This makes Joe just as much of a narcissist as we saw in the previous breakdown, even if he’s not a Trumpian businessman like Maxwell Lord.

But is there a character that is more self-involved than Joe in Soul? Let’s take a look at the breakdown first…

The Breakdown

Protagonist: Joe
Want: Professional Jazz Pianist
Need: Embrace Life

Antagonist: Terry / 22
Want: Return the missing soul to the Great Beyond / Get an Earth badge for Joe
Need: Embrace Life

Pre-Existing Life: Joe is a middle school band teacher who dreams of being a professional musician. When a student is teased for playing well, Joe gives an impassioned speech about life’s purpose and how his is music. When he’s given a full time position at the school, he’s disappointed but his mother insists that he take it.

Inciting Incident: Joe gets an audition to play with a jazz band and gets the gig! He’s so excited as he’s leaving that he’s not paying attention and walks into an open sewer, falling in, and dies. Joe fights his way off the conveyor belt to the Great Beyond and lands in the place where souls are made. He’s mistaken for a mentor by the “Jerrys”. Terry realizes a soul is missing from the count and they’re on the hunt.

Plot Push / First Act Decision: Joe is paired with “22”, a soul who has been torturing mentors for thousands of years. 22 (who has no real gender and will use they/them pronouns here) has no interest in leaving this plane for Earth. Joe gets a glimpse of “highlights” from his life and is disappointed by what he sees. He makes a deal with 22 to help them get their “spark”, which will get them an “Earth badge”, which Joe will use to get back to Earth while 22 gets to stay on this plane.

Reversal: Joe takes 22 through a hall of every possible hobby/skill on Earth and they are interested in nothing. 22 can’t really feel or taste so they don’t understand the full beauty of anything Joe shows them. They leave the hall and a Jerry appears, telling Joe that since he couldn’t get 22 their badge he will be sent to the Great Beyond. 22 jumps in to say that Joe is helping and to give them more time. 22 then takes Joe to hide from the Jerrys, showing him the land of Lost Souls and The Zone.

Midpoint: The Zone is where people go when they are flowing in their passion, but beneath that zone is where Lost Souls wind up wandering through darkness. Here, 22 introduces Joe to Moonwind. Moonwind is a soul in the Zone who helps bring Lost Souls back to life. Moonwind helps Joe and 22 find a thin spot where Joe can see his Earth form. Joe and 22 fall through the thin spot and land on Earth… with Joe in a therapy cat’s body and 22 in Joe’s body. They find Moonwind in his Earth form and he says he can swap the souls if they show that night at 630pm (just before Joe’s jazz show). Joe walks 22 through life on Earth, but they are seen by Dorothy (from the jazz club) looking nuts, and Joe gets a call that they’re going to go with a different pianist. Joe still has a chance if he shows up looking amazing and makes a strong case for himself. At the same time, Terry figures out that it’s Joe’s soul that’s missing and heads to Earth to get him back.

Reversal #2: One of Joe’s students shows up, declaring she’s quitting band, and 22 unintentionally helps the student remember why they love music. In cat form, Joe ruins his hair and they rush to the barbershop to get it fixed. 22 loves the experience and makes friends with everyone there, something that Joe failed to pay attention to in the past. 22 accidentally splits Joe’s only nice pair of pants so they go to Joe’s mother (who doesn’t want him to perform) to see if she’ll repair them. Through 22 in Joe’s body, Joe and his mother are finally able to have a heart-to-heart about his dreams and her support/fear. Wanting to prove her support to her son, Joe’s mom gives him his father’s suit and fixes it up so he looks amazing.

False Climax / Low Point: 22, loving all the beauty in the world, shows Joe all the little things they’ve collected throughout the day. Joe dismisses 22’s collection and passion, believing that it’s only happening because they are seeing things through Joe’s eyes and not their own. They get to Moonwind and 22 refuses to go back. They want to stay on Earth and runs away. Joe chases after 22 and in the chase, Terry catches them both and brings them back to the other plane.

Plot Push / Third Act Decision: As 22 and Joe argue, the Jerrys realize that the 22’s badge has changed. The Jerrys allow Joe to walk 22 to the jump to say goodbye to 22 before Joe goes to the Great Beyond. Joe tells 22 that none of the experiences on Earth were their own and that they didn’t really earn that badge. 22 chucks it at Joe when no one is looking, allowing Joe to return to Earth and 22 disappears into their hiding place. Joe asks Jerry what 22’s “purpose” is and Jerry laughs him off. Joe goes and wins back his spot in the jazz gig. He kills it, but when it’s over he’s disappointed at the idea that he would just do the same thing over and over. Dorothea tells him that he needs more than waiting for the “next big thing” in life. He goes home and looks over 22’s “collection”, missing them. He plays the piano and gets into The Zone, where Moonwind shows Joe that 22 is now a “lost soul”.

Climax: Joe corners 22, trying to get through to them. 22 “consumes” Joe and, inside of 22, Joe is able to see and hear all of 22’s negative self talk. A lot of it are things that Joe said to 22. Joe gets through to 22 by telling them that life is meant to be lived and giving 22 his Earth badge. 22 is scared, so Joe jumps to Earth with them, letting 22 drift down to Earth while Joe lands back on the conveyor to the Great Beyond.

Resolution: Jerry stops Joe on the belt and tells him they’re going to give him another chance for a life on Earth because they are so impressed by what he did for 22. Joe returns to Earth, excited to live.

Conclusion

First before we get into this last part I just want to say… I am so upset on behalf of Joe’s mom. That woman’s son dies THREE TIMES in the film and she never hears about a single one. First he falls in a sewer grate and no one calls her even though she would definitely be his emergency contact. Then, he collapses in the subway… no phone call. Then he collapses in his apartment when he crosses over the last time. She is so lucky that the Jerrys let him live at the end! Especially when they finally have a heart-to-heart and we learn how scared she has been for him and his ability to take care of himself his whole life! She finally shows her support and sees him perform, bringing her friends with her to cheer him on… and then he goes home and basically kills himself to save 22. Granted, 22 deserves a shot at life, but HOLY HELL. I want so badly to know if this came up in the “brain trust” of Pixar at all during development, because it’s all I could think about every time he crossed over.

Okay, back to the analysis.

I recently took a screenwriting course with the Go Into The Story‘s Scott Meyers. I love learning new perspectives on screenwriting and had been seeing ads for their Pixar intensive for years and decided to gift it to myself this year for Christmas. One thing the course talks about is a recurring story premise of the “strange sojourners” throughout many of Pixar’s films (Woody/Buzz, Carl/Russell, Ian/Barley, etc.). The course breaks it down that these character-driven stories often don’t have a clear antagonist, but I think these pairings put the antagonist right in forefront. Some are simply “positive” antagonists. They all surely represent one character who has a trait that the protagonist must work against and also a trait the protagonist should learn. 22, in Soul, is no different.

When I say that “I think” this, I want to be clear that this isn’t a special way of looking at things. Again, there are multiple levels of antagonistic forces. Essentially, everything in your film should be working against your protagonist to strengthen them until your protagonist comes out the other end a changed person. The school I attended for screenwriting focused on analyzing scripts the way that Robert McKee and Syd Field do in their books, so these ideas are in those works. I’m of the opinion that all screenwriting books are saying the same thing but approaching from a different angle or lens.

For Joe, his “flaw” is that he doesn’t pay attention to life. He’s not living but waiting for the next big thing. Antagonists are a version of the protagonist to an exaggerated effect.

This makes the “clear” antagonist in the film is Terry. Joe’s “flaw” is that he isn’t really “living”. He’s oblivious to what’s in front of him and is not present in the moment. Terry is hunting Joe and 22, to bring them back to the other side. Terry is the most “present” character in the film. They’re constantly working and hunting and define their life by their job. While Joe doesn’t want a job because he views it as “soul-sucking” and taking away from his passion, Terry lives for their job and their job alone. That’s not really living anymore than Joe is.

The less clear antagonist is 22. If Joe isn’t really “living” then 22 is the exaggerated version and straight up doesn’t want to live. They don’t understand the beauty that comes with living because the recreations on the plane they exist on can’t allow them to really taste, smell, or feel. So there’s nothing to get excited about, but when they see Joe’s life in moments, it doesn’t look appealing.

It actually doesn’t even appeal to Joe because he’s taken living for granted.

He needs to realize he hasn’t been grateful, and 22 needs to understand why people are grateful. They can’t do that until they have a picture of living.

Neither Terry or 22 appear to be a “positive” antagonist at the start because neither is even close to what Joe wants or should be. This changes when 22 gets into Joe’s body though. 22 might not have lived but they have relationships with every single person they come in contact with (even if it was torture for the countless mentors they had over millions of years). This unique skill is why we love 22 and why they’re able to connect with the people in Joe’s life the way he’s been unable to. Joe has to learn to be like 22, which makes 22 a positive antagonist.

Joe doesn’t ever say this to 22. None of the Jerrys even notice this skill in 22 because so many mentors speak ill of the little soul. If you hear the same negative thoughts about yourself over and over, at some point you’re likely to believe those thoughts. That’s what happens to 22 and they spiral out…

When you look at the traits of someone who is depressed, there is often a disconnect from the world. Something has happened that harms their ability to find the positives in life and they isolate so they lose their connection to others. Other times, people suffer from chronic depression, making it even more difficult to connect. This overwhelming sadness consumes them, as we see it does the same with 22.

When Joe sees the dark thoughts 22 is having (and is even quoting him) believing that they’re not enough to deserve life, it is an incredibly powerful view on depression.

Gratitude is an important step in grounding yourself mentally and connecting to the world around you. It’s more than “things” like we see in WW84, it’s a full connection to life, the Universe, a collective unconscious… whatever your view on living is.

These two films were such beautiful reminders of what we have to be grateful for in life, but also being grateful for others in our lives and how to speak to them. Honor ourselves in living and we honor others in how we treat them.

I hope your weeks are going well and you’re all writing and reading a ton in the new year!

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