As with all movies on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete synopsis of the film, but rather to document how the movie relates to the meaning of life. With that said, be forewarned, there are still spoilers ahead.
Soul is an animated film about the purpose of life (about living life), that was produced by Pixar and released by Disney in 2020. The story revolves around two characters. The first, Joe Gardner, a middle-aged middle school music teacher. The second, an unborn soul that has been stuck in The Great Before for thousands of years looking for her spark. Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa, Copernicus, Muhammad Ali, Marie Antoinette, Carl Jung, George Orwell, were just a few mentors who tried to help 22 find her spark, but none succeeded.
One day at school, Principal Arroyo requests that Joe step out of the classroom for a few minutes. To his surprise, he learns that he is being offered a full-time job (with benefits) teaching music! No more part-time work for him, no more instability. He just has to give up his dreams—give up his aspirations of becoming a musician. But he is less than enthusiastic about the prospect. As luck would have it, one of Joe’s former students, Curly, calls him up—he’s got a gig, and not some random menial gig, rather a gig with the famous jazz musician/saxophone player, Dorothea Williams, and best of all, Joe is needed as a pianist. He eagerly accepts, auditions, and is part of the quartet (at least tentatively).
Unfortunately for Joe, he doesn’t survive the day. After the audition, elated from being on the verge of realizing his dream, he walks home absentmindedly, somehow miraculously avoiding death several times. But ultimately his luck would run out and he falls into a manhole—dies (well, kind of dies).
He is off to The Great Beyond (the place souls go when they die). Here he fights his way back, all the way back to The Great Before (the place souls are born). There he meets some quantum mumbo jumbo intelligence called Jerry and is granted permission by Jerry to become a mentor for an unborn soul. That soul is #22 (a soul caught in a bit of a catch-22), a soul who has lingered in The Great Before since nearly the beginning time (hence the low number). In fact, the soul that is selected before 22 for mentorship paring is 108,210,121,415 (which according to the Population Reference Bureau, is approximately the number of people that lived on earth to date at the time the movie was released).
22 has been mentored by some of the greatest people to have ever of graced the planet earth. Now it is Joe’s turn, and then we see the greatest moments of his life. We see Joe slouched in front of a TV—blank face, emotionless, sad even. The scene shifts. Joe is eating alone; he is failing auditions left and right. There is a statue of him doing laundry, staring out into void, expressionless—you know, the emotionless state we all live in that is becoming more and more prevalent as we spend more of our lives staring into screens. Spending more and more time online. Yet, think back, were any of the best moments of your life spent online? These are his greatest moments, and on seeing this, he states, My life was meaningless.
Yet, he is fighting to get that life back and 22 cannot figure out why. Joe feels that if he can just get back to perform one last gig with Dorothea, his life will have had some meaning.
After failing to help 22 find her spark, 22 takes Joe to The Zone. This is a place between the physical world and the spiritual. The place where people go when they get so entranced by whatever it is they are doing, the blissfulness of existence overtakes them. It doesn’t matter if you’re a jazz musician or a sign spinner, anyone can end up in The Zone. But as Joe would learn, not only those who love what they do end up in The Zone, so do the people who get so engulfed, so obsessed with whatever they are doing, they become lost souls, they become disconnected with life. Think hedge fund manager, stock traders, those obsessed with making so much money they can envision no other reason for being. Of course, there are other obsessions as well, and this is just one example.
Anyway, eventually Joe makes it back to the planet Earth. Only his soul ends up in a cat, and 22’s soul ends up in Joe’s body. 22 whines, complains, and even hides in a corner not wanting to face the real world. But 22’s fears are nothing a little pizza cannot solve. 22, like any kid, is excited about everything—wants to naively experience everything. She is fascinated by a maple seed twirling in the air, falling to the ground. By the taste of pizza, by the subway, by music, by … anything and everything! Just the experience of existence is exciting. Which, quite honestly, is something most of us lose as we get older.
Think about it. As we grow old, we are fascinated less and less by what surrounds us. Someone could shout, Look, there is a dragon!, and most of us, if we’ve reached mid-life, would shrug our shoulders and neither garner up the interest, nor the energy to turn our heads and look. We’ve either already seen it or could care less to see it. Most of us have never even seen a meteor shower, though they do happen every few months. We’ve neither the interest nor the energy for shooting stars, for sky-watching. Somewhere along the line we lose our sense of wonder and in the process, we forget our spark, and never end up realizing our purpose.
Getting back to the story, Joe is still in the body of the cat, and 22 is still in the body of Joe. The two end up at a barbershop after Cat-Joe botches a haircut on Joe’s body. In the barber’s chair, 22 is the boss, and she loves it. She dives into a deep philosophical monologue, and even quizzes those in the room, They say you are born to do something, but how do you figure out what that thing is? Anyway, Joe, like most middle-aged men also put on a few extra pounds. So, as it would happen, out on the street sporting one of his old suits, he splits his pants after bending over. Cat-Joe and 22-Joe have only one place to go—to Joe’s momma’s tailor shop.
The two arrive, head to the back, and face their fear together. Joe’s mom takes one look at him, and the disappointment is clear. You see, Joe’s father was also a musician and it never brought in any money for the family, never brought any stability. After exchanging a few words,
Mom: You can’t eat dreams for breakfast Joey.
Joe: Then I don’t want to eat. This isn’t about my career, mom. It’s my reason for living. And I know my dad felt the same way. I’m just afraid that if I died today, that my life would’ve amount to nothing.
His mother gives in and decides to help Joe fulfill his dream. She gives Joe his father’s suit and sends him on his way to attend the gig with Dorothea Williams.
Terry, another quantum intelligence, an accountant, tracks Joe and 22 down, and sends them back to The Great Before. Here Joe and 22 exchange the following words:
22: Truth is, I’ve always worried that maybe there’s something wrong with me. You know? Maybe I’m not good enough for living. But then you showed me about purpose and passion, and maybe sky-watching can be my spark. Or walking. I’m really good at walking.
Joe: Those really aren’t purposes, 22. That’s just regular old living.
Eventually, everything gets sorted out. Joe is back in his body, 22 finds her spark, and Joe plays in the quartet like it is his last day on earth. When it is all done, he asks Dorothea what’s next. She responds that they do it all over again the next night. Joe pauses. He thought it would be different, he waited his whole life for this one moment, and it wasn’t what he thought it would be. Dorothea then proceeds to tell Joe the story of a young fish wanting to find the ocean, and an older fish trying to explain that they were already in it … only for the younger fish not to believe it, stating this is just water, not the ocean.
22 decides to give Earth a try. Joe is given a second chance at life. Jerry quizzes Joe on what he will do with it. Joe responds that he will live every second of it.
So, what is the movie telling us? Well, many of us spend so much of our lives chasing something that we feel will bring meaning to it and then when we finally have whatever it is we have been chasing, we realize that that the thing we’ve been chasing really doesn't bring any more meaning to it than it had before. In between it all, like Joe, we are often sad, disillusioned, feel like failures, and end up not actually living our lives. When instead we need to look around—rediscover the magic of seeing fireflies for the first time, fireworks, shooting stars, the mechanics of maple leaves twirling through the air, and the brilliance of the world—the universe and everything within it. This is what 22 helps Joe see, and in return, Joe helps 22 figure out why life is worth living. Purposes aren't assigned, they are discovered.
Here is our rating:
Overall – 10
Meaning of Life Relevance – 10
Uniqueness - 10
A great film. There is so much more we could have touched upon here. Did you see the movie? If so, what did you think? What did we miss?