Pixar’s Soul goes where few children's films have gone before in order to explore the ideas of existentialism and purpose. Its lessons about life, death, and finding your spark can be easily understood by young audiences, especially when accompanied with its mesmerizing visuals, witty characters, and whimsical music. The writer and director of Soul, Pete Docter, expertly explores difficult questions that are as intriguing to children as to adults. Pixar doesn't just make movies for children—Soul in particular is a multilayered film that appeals differently but equally to viewers of all ages.
I wish I could have seen this movie when I was a kid. It's a pleasant adventure that takes the fear out of both life and death. For children who are dealing with anxiety about dying or experiencing a similar loss, the film presents a comforting new perspective: our souls exist in an infinite loop, and no one is really gone forever. Whether you believe in reincarnation or not, Soul reassures audiences by suggesting that individuals live on, even after death—especially in the memories of their loved ones.
The film takes place in present day New York, where we are introduced to music teacher Joe Gardner, who falls down a manhole on the way to perform jazz. He finds himself on a conveyor belt to "The Great Beyond," but in his attempt to escape he falls into "The Great Before." This is where counselors—called Jerrys—prepare unborn souls for life on Earth. Joe is mistaken for a mentor and assigned to soul #22 to help her find her "spark"—the last part of her badge that deems her ready to live.
22 has no desire to go to Earth and live. She assumes she'll hate it, even though she's never experienced it, and she’d rather exist as an unclaimed soul in The Great Before. Joe, though less cynical about life, lives solely to have his big break on stage and one day accompany famous singer Dorothea Williams. He assumes this will be the ultimate euphoria in his life.
With the help of Moonwind, a mystic who rescues lost souls, Joe goes back to Earth—but 22 accidentally accompanies him. 22 falls into Joe's comatose body, whereas Joe's soul inhabits the therapy cat on his hospital bed. Eventually, Terry, who counts souls en route to The Great Beyond, catches up to the pair and brings them back to The Great Before.
After returning to Earth in his own body, Joe finally achieves his dream but is surprisingly underwhelmed. At this moment, Williams tells him a story—a possible homage to David Foster Wallace's This Is Water speech—about a fish who swims to an older fish and says, "I'm trying to find this thing they call the ocean."
"The ocean?" the older fish says. "That’s what you’re in right now."
"This," says the young fish, "is water. What I want is the ocean!’”
If we always want something bigger and better, how can we truly be happy with what we already have? Williams' anecdote explores how our expectations can skew our perceptions, and how if we're always chasing happiness, we might fail to notice it in the moment.
Soul tackles the consequences of relentlessly pursuing a goal and putting undue pressure on oneself to achieve it. Describing 22 after her visit to Earth, Moonwind tells Joe, “Lost souls are obsessed with something that disconnects them from life.” In the film, lost souls are dark silhouettes that wander a desert–like scene, frantically repeating their unattainable goals to themselves. When we begin to obsess over finding success, we lose the ability to get there. This anxiety can paralyze us and trap us in a purgatory where it’s impossible to move forward.
Both Joe and 22 experience the joy of life's small moments throughout the film. While 22's soul briefly inhabits Joe's body, she enjoys eating pizza for the first time and chatting with new people, showing her that life is worth living. Similarly, Joe remembers how much happier he was before pressuring himself to achieve a singular goal, and reflects on his best childhood memories.
As a college student, I found that this film spoke to the pressures of late adolescence and early adulthood, especially in how we find ourselves always pursuing specific goals instead of enjoying the moment. Students are continually encouraged to plan life ten years in advance. In high school, it’s all about where you’re going to college, and in college, it’s all about what you’re doing post–graduation. Soul tells us that it’s more than okay to be undecided.
Joe and 22 discover that one’s purpose in life has nothing to do with talent, fame, or fortune. Rather, it’s about appreciating life’s little gifts—the perfect slice of pie, a beautiful sunset, the feeling of waves crashing on your toes. Once 22 realizes this, she is finally ready to go to Earth. The film shows us the importance of slowing down and living in the moment instead of constantly striving for some nebulous future.
Joe's journey comes to a close with a question of how he’s going to spend his newfound life. Joe responds by saying, “I don’t know … but I do know I’m going to live every minute of it.” Soul shows us the difference between being alive and living, while encouraging children and adults alike to find their purpose in appreciating everyday life.