Spoilers for Soul to follow!
It would be easy to begin this review by talking about Pixar’s incredible track record and how it’s no surprise that Soul is as great as it is, but you already know that (and I’ve already talked about Pixar at length). So instead, I’ll talk about how, even with the lofty expectations set by Pixar and director Pete Docter, I was still absolutely floored watching this movie.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the role a job or profession should take in somebody’s life. It seems like people tend to define themselves by their work. Their life is driven by getting the promotion or job they want or making it in a certain career so that they can finally be happy. This was me not too long ago. And this was Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) at the beginning of Soul.
Joe is a part time middle school band teacher whose ultimate goal in life is to be a professional jazz pianist. He doesn’t look at teaching as his long term solution but just as a way of paying the bills so he can still play gigs on the side. Even when he’s finally offered a full time position with full benefits at the school, rather than being excited, he’s disappointed because it means less time practicing and getting gigs.
That same day, Joe gets a call from a former student who offers him the chance to play with Dorothea Williams, a famous jazz musician. Joe thinks this is the opportunity of a lifetime that will take him to the next step because, as he says, “I was born to play,” and here the main theme of the movie is introduced.
Right then while walking home, Joe falls down a manhole. But instead of waking up in a hospital bed (or not at all), Joe finds himself on a conveyor belt to the “Great Beyond,” which is basically heaven. Through sheer force of will, Joe manages to escape the conveyor belt and make it to the “Great Before,” which is where souls go before they become humans on earth. There they are given a personality type before being sent off to become people. The catch, though, is that they have to want to go to earth.
After being mistaken for a former counselor, Joe is paired with a soul named 22, which stands for the fact that this soul is the twenty-second soul ever. She’s been around so long because of her cynicism. She doesn’t see any reason to go to earth. She claims she already knows everything there is to know about the world and that she doesn’t want to have to go and experience any of it.
Joe tells 22 she just needs to find her purpose. Once she finds that, she’ll see just how great earth is and want to get back as badly as he does. His purpose is playing piano and he was on track to play with Dorothea Williams – a chance that he just can’t let slip away.
Eventually, Joe and 22 make it to earth, but there’s a mix up which lands 22 in Joe’s body and lands Joe in the body of a cat. 22 is able to experience life on earth for the first time. Up to this point, all she ever did was gain knowledge about what life on earth would be like, and she never experienced it for herself. But as she starts to live it, she begins to understand what all the fuss is about. She has a conversation about life with the barber, tastes pizza for the first time, hears a musician playing in the subway, and sees a maple seed fluttering down to the ground from a tree while looking into the beautifully lit day. These are all things she never could have understood unless she was there.
Eventually, 22 has to learn that life is what you make of it. I’ve seen and heard a lot of people say that 22 is just there to be silly comic relief (these people do have somewhat of a point – she’s voiced by Tina Fey, after all) and doesn’t matter much to the overall story, but in some ways, I find her character arc to be more meaningful than Joe’s. Without 22’s arc, the movie wouldn’t explore the idea of wanting to live just for the experience of life. At least, it wouldn’t ring as true without her. She says early on, “I already know everything about earth and it’s not worth the trouble.” This just goes to show that you can know everything about life, but you can’t find its real meaning and value unless you go out and experience what the world has to offer.
Joe, on the other hand, learns that there’s so much more to life than just the one thing you’re passionate about. At one point he says, “I’m afraid if I died today, my life would’ve amounted to nothing,” all because he spent the majority of his time as a music teacher instead of a professional musician. He places his value in what he does and not in life itself. When he’s trying to help 22 find her purpose and 22 is zealous for life, he tells her that what she’s describing is just, “regular old living.” But the irony is how that is the purpose to strive for.
He eventually makes it back to his body to play with Dorothea Williams and the performance goes as well as he could have hoped. But it still left him feeling empty and wondering what’s next. It’s the moment where he realizes he won’t find ultimate fulfillment through what he does, but from how he lives.
The final line of the film is especially meaningful. Joe is asked what he’s going to do with his life because of the new revelations he’s discovered (in a large part because of 22). He replies, “I don’t know. But I do know I’m gonna live every minute of it.”
You don’t need to find one specific purpose in life because there is so much out there in the world that can help you find depth and fulfillment. It’s something I’ve come to realize over the last number of months and I’ve experienced a similar sort of freeing feeling to the one that Joe experiences. It’s why the movie hit home so perfectly for me. I went through a whole personal epiphany and now I’ve had it portrayed in film form, much like the way that I went through it.
In his book To Hell With The Hustle, author Jefferson Bethke talks about this very thing. Setting goals may be counterintuitive. He calls them “formations” instead and says, “One is about the end. The other is about the present. One is about doing. The other is about being. One is about results. The other is about the process.” This book is one of the things that helped me come to my personal realizations about the point of life and I love the way some of its themes tie into the themes of Soul.
I don’t want to live my life trying to achieve goals just for the sake of achieving them. I want to let the process of achieving those goals teach me something about life and help me to appreciate it more. Because ultimately, when you reach a goal, you’re not satisfied for long before you’re on to the next one But if you’re letting yourself be formed through your process, then you’re opening yourself up to continuous nourishment for your soul. And that should be the ultimate goal.