Pixar’s Soul Changes How We Find Meaning in Life

Art by Maddy Brown

Soul is a Disney Pixar animated film, released in 2020 for streaming on Disney +. The film is a landmark for Pixar: it is the first film to have an African – American lead and its thematic exploration covers uncharted territory. The film stars Jamie Foxx as Joe Gardner, an aspiring Jazz musician and high school band teacher and Tina Fey as no.22, a new soul who doesn’t want to begin life on earth. The movie was directed by Pete Docter, famous for his previous directing work on Up (2009) and Inside Out (2015).

 The story follows Gardner through his trials and tribulations chasing his dream to become a successful jazz musician, but on his way to his first major gig with famous jazz musician, Dorothea Williams – Joe finds himself in the ‘Great Beyond’. What follows is Joe’s desperate attempts to get back to the life that he believed he had barely begun living. He manages to end up as a soul counsellor in the ‘Great Before’, a place where unborn souls are taught to find their ‘spark’ before they can be born on Earth. Joe is paired with no. 22 who has been in the ‘Great Before’ for over a millennium, and it is Joe’s job to help them discover their ‘spark’ in life. 

Soul pushes a lot of barriers and is a film that often fits many of the clichés that you would expect from a film trying to give children a run-down on finding meaning in life. The first trailer left a lot to be desired, with many comparing it Inside Out, disappointed with another movie that seems to have recycled its plot. But Soul takes some unexpected twists, for example including an astro-projecting group of souls that help save souls that are ‘lost’ or without purpose, and an unexpected body-swap storyline. However, the film often has trouble with its pacing, sometimes moving with breakneck speed over the beginning and then grinding down to a halt around the middle before moving back to a watchable pace. With Joe’s death, this feels like a purposeful choice to mimic the feeling of an abrupt death but often it just makes the film feel slow in some parts. 

 The movie does have many good points though. The animation in the film is absolutely gorgeous and entirely unexpected. Many of the scenes that take place on earth are filled with more detail than many animated films I’ve ever seen, from its like-life designs, to its realistic textures and bright colours. The ‘Great Beyond’ and ‘Great Before’ use remarkably simple colour palettes and many soft 2D shapes and lines. It is also a lot more stylised and souls are given uniform shapes and colours with only one or two identifying details compared to the complexity and uniqueness of the designs of humans found on Earth. These artistic choices are a very unsubtle way of showcasing the main themes and messaging of the film. 

 The film’s main strength overall is its approach to themes. They certainly aren’t easy ones for a children’s animated film to tackle. Soul delves into ideas of what life and death look like, and how we find purpose and meaning through creativity, or a simple, ordinary life. Joe and subsequently no. 22’s journey from the ‘Great Before’, ‘Great Beyond’ and life take us through how the creators of the film want us to view our own lives. Joe believes that his purpose is to be a jazz musician, that, if he can just make it as one, his life will have the kind of meaning he has always been looking for. For no. 22, life has no inherent meaning or purpose and there really isn’t any reason to want to live at all. But through their journeys, not only does Joe learn the value in the life he had already been living, but no. 22 also learns that there are things worth living and taking risks for. This journey is intensely familiar for many of us, trying to find meaning and fulfillments in our lives. Soul provides a hopeful and almost cathartic experience as we watch characters from vastly different backgrounds find their own meaning and fulfillment. 

 The movie also has some very interesting concepts based on what it means to create art and be an artist. Soul explores the concept of “the zone” where artists enter a zone where they are no longer on earth but entering a spiritual place with their soul when they truly concentrate on their art. The movie is also filled with reverence for music— particularly jazz. The love the creators have for art and music and how that can create meaning in life is evident throughout the film especially in the nostalgic almost lingering scenes on the process of making music. The passion, love and understanding the creators showed towards art and music makes the film much more engaging, and especially enjoyable for people who love music themselves. 

 Soul  is a film that I would highly recommend watching. I don’t think it’s an entirely interesting or easy watch for children. However, for the rest of us, its exploration of many of the truths that we search for in our own lives can yield really profound and meaningful insights. When I first finished watching the film, I was happy and surprised not only by how well made it was but also in how refreshingly and convincingly it conveyed themes that are often left repeated and unheard for many of us. In the end, one part of the film really stood out to me. Towards the end of Soul Joe discovers a small seed that no. 22 collects from their time on earth, and he thinks of all the small human moments he experienced in his life. In that moment, Joe realises that the meaning of life is often what we make of it ourselves, and it isn’t always a large grand dream, but simply being willing to live every day.