Pixar’s Soul Examines Existence, The Meaning of Life, and Why Our Lives are Beautiful


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On Christmas Day, Pixar Animation Studios released their newest movie, titled Soul, onto Disney+. Soul follows Joe Gardner, a middle-aged band teacher who has spent his life chasing his dream of being a jazz musician, only to be disappointed by his lack of achievement. When he finally lands a high-profile gig with Dorathea Williams, a musician that Joe admires greatly, Joe is ecstatic. So close to the greatest night of his life, he suddenly finds himself dead. Unable to accept his life’s end, Joe cheats death, sending him on a journey that would teach himself and 22, an unborn soul he meets along the way, the true meaning of life. In this subtle and thoughtful film, Director Pete Doctor captures the story of a man who discovers the truth about passion, purpose, and what makes a life worth living.

Pixar’s Soul actively reflects on the existential nature of life and death. As Joe raves about landing the gig with Dorathea Williams to a friend on the phone, he walks incautiously through construction zones, between moving cars, and by spilled banana peels and nails, putting himself in danger time and time again. Eventually, fate catches up with him when he falls down a pothole. His soul lands on a conveyor belt in the soul world, where he begins to inch towards the Great Beyond, a great white void. What lay beyond this void is a complete mystery, paralleling the physical world’s struggle to determine what comes after life on Earth. What lay beyond may be Heaven. It may be Hell. It may be nothing at all. It may be different for everyone or a shared experience of anyone. Subtly, Pixar allows their movie-going audience to consider their own and other spiritual beliefs without picking a side themselves, allowing for a thought-provoking and existentially rich experience. 

Unwilling to lose the chance to live out the pinnacle of his existence, Joe escapes, jumping off of the conveyor belt and into the “Great Before,” now known as the “You Seminar,” where new souls are given their personalities, quirks, and interests before they go to Earth. Contrary to their earlier film Inside Out, Pixar delves into the nature aspect of the nature vs. nurture debate, arguing that people’s personalities are formed before their births. Where Inside Out argued that core memories are what molds someone’s personality and interests, Soul argues that personality and interests are built into people. At first, these ideas seem contradictory. However, there may be a connection between the two. Joe, afraid of being sent back to the conveyor belt, pretends to be a “soul mentor,” helping these new souls find their passions before they go to Earth. He is assigned 22, an apathetic and talentless soul who has no interest in going to Earth. 22 and Joe walk through a museum of Joe’s life. Joe shows 22 the day he says he “fell in love” with jazz. His father had taken him to a jazz club, where a man was performing a beautiful piano piece. Joe’s spark may have been jazz music from the beginning. Nonetheless, he fell in love with it during his life. Had he not been exposed to it in the way he had, he may have never discovered that interest. His experience with his father contributed to his passion just as much as his inborn draw to it. Together, Inside Out and Soul create a fascinating thematic duology built upon Pixar’s unique take on the nature vs. nurture debate.

In an effort to help Joe get back to his body, 22 introduces him to Moonwind, a man who has found the bridge between the physical and spiritual worlds. In the “You Seminar,” trying to find Moonwind, 22 takes Joe to “The Zone,” the place where people of all talents go when they’re “getting into a flow.” Floating in the sky in the glowing lights of their passions, people from all over the world seemed to find immense pleasure and purpose in what they were doing, much like Joe did when he played the piano. Taking in the beauty of the place, neither Joe nor 22 notice the strange lumpy beings trudging along the sand until one spots them. It runs towards them, arms outstretched and wriggling like spaghetti noodles. It almost catches them but Moonwind, making a fast entrance, saves them, catching and trapping it. He lets the creature out. He and his accomplices begin to play instruments where they stand. Somehow, the creature began to crumble into sand. All that remains of it is the soul of a man, knees tucked up to his chest as he whimpers the words “Make a trade” over and over again. Slowly, he seems to wake up, becoming aware of his surroundings. Moonwind opens a portal to the physical world, revealing the man’s body, hunched over a computer, bags under his eyes. The man’s soul leaps back into his body. Immediately, his outlook on life shifts. He jumps up, repetitively crying out, “I’m alive!” Moonwind then invites Joe and 22 onto his ship. As they sail through the sand, Joe sees other creatures, sadly wandering around the sands. Moonwind tells him that passions can bring you joy but can easily become obsessions that drag people down to that pitiful state. Notably, Pixar only separates the thriving souls from the creatures by them being somewhat higher off of the ground, signifying that they are not so different from one another. The creatures had once been like those other souls until they lost themselves too much in their passions. Passions are beautiful things that can fill people with purpose and happiness. However, passions can also trap people, not allowing them to enjoy life beyond them.

The teaser trailer for Soul excited movie-going audiences, who were happy to see that Pixar would be releasing what looked to be a movie about a black man chasing his passion for jazz. Many compared their vision to two of Pixar’s older films Coco and Ratatouille, hoping Soul would be similar. In December, audiences got to witness the true story Pixar had created for them. Joe knew that he wanted to play the piano ever since his father took him to that jazz club. The man playing lit up Joe in a special way, inspiring him to take up the instrument for himself. His life would become an ongoing mission to be a real musician. Despite being turned down, again and again, Joe holds onto his passion for jazz and his mission to play professionally. Eventually, Joe reunites with his body. He finally fulfills his lifelong dream. He spends that night playing beautiful music for a crowd and cements his place in Dorothea Williams’s band. After the performance is over, Joe stands in front of the club. Slowly, his smile begins to fade and he comes to the realization that the experience had underwhelmed him. What was meant to forever change him, what was going to bring him purpose, what he had lived his whole life edging towards, simply led him back to where he started. Nothing had changed. His life would go on. Dorathea Williams joins him, noticing his struggle. She tells him a story about a fish who spent his life looking for the ocean. The fish asked an older fish where it was, to which the older fish told him that he was already in the ocean. The younger fish said, “This is water. What I’m looking for is the ocean.” The young fish is like Joe, having searched his entire life for something that it already had. Joe, having chased his musical career like the fish had chased the ocean. Joe’s life, made up of an endless blanket of memories and occurrences, was the water. The time spent with his family, the taste of maple pecan pie, the time he spent inspired by the piano, and simply getting to be a part of the world and the greater universe around him was just as relevant in his life, even if Joe pushed the majority of them aside to pursue a single one. Later, as he sat at his piano unable to enjoy it in the same way, he realized what his life’s true purpose was. Gradually, he begins to play, not from ambition but from his heart, as he relives his life through his memories of it. His life’s purpose was only to live. Not for his passion. Not for one specific thing. For life itself. Pixar took a bold risk, subverting the expectations of their audience in a way that may have alienated them. In doing so, they created a masterpiece of a scene, illustrating their emotional, intellectual, and artistic merit as a studio in the realm of top-tier animation. 

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