Here I explore the message of Soul in Pixar’s latest film:
I loved Pixar’s newest movie, Soul. It was the movie I needed in my life right now, and I’ve already watched it 3 times. I think it has a lot of interesting things to say and it certainly gives you a lot to think about. The themes of the movie really hit me, but it also has made me think so much that I’ve not only watched the movie, I’ve started reading interviews with the creators, doing research, getting other people’s opinions.
I know some people have mentioned they are confused about the message that Soul is trying to share, or that they have questions. First of all, I think it’s okay to leave the movie feeling like there are questions. It’s not a film that’s going to wrap everything up in a perfect bow and give you all the answers (if Pixar could tell us everything about the meaning of life I would be very impressed!).
I thought it might be helpful if I shared some of my own thoughts and interpretations about the messages of Soul and themes that it explores. I think the best way to do that is to first take a look at the questions that Soul asks throughout the film, and then see what conclusions we can draw. Of course with a topic that centers so much around philosophy, a lot of this is open to interpretation!
Questions that Soul asks
The movie Soul seems to ask a lot of questions that center around the idea of the meaning of life. Is life meaningless? When Joe looks back on his life of music and realizes he never achieved his dream of making it big time with jazz music, he concludes this his life has been meaningless.
What is our purpose? This is asked many times on 22’s behalf as they still haven’t found their spark. Joe seems to be sure of his purpose until the very end of the film, when he actually does achieve his dream. When 22 reaches their lowest point they continually repeat “I’m no good. I got no purpose.”
What makes you, You? This question even comes up in the trailer for the movie. It definitely seems that we are unique, but why? How?
Am I good enough to be alive? 22 hasn’t even been born yet and they are already questioning life. When they still haven’t found a spark 22 asks, “I’ve always worried that maybe there’s something wrong with me. You know? Maybe I’m not good enough for living.”
What happens next? This is asked moreso about the human world and life, rather than in terms of an afterlife. This movie deals with enough without asking about that too! We’re told about the “Great Beyond” but it’s not really discussed otherwise. After Joe achieves his dream of playing a big jazz gig he doesn’t seem to feel as fulfilled as he expected. He asks “What happens next?” After being told they come back the next day and just play again, he responds, “I’ve been waiting on this day my entire life. I thought I’d feel different.”
The “message” of Soul
One of the key mistakes that Joe makes through this movie is thinking he has some grand purpose in life. For him, he thinks music is his purpose. It’s why he was brought to earth and what he was meant to do. But music isn’t his purpose, it’s his spark. What’s the difference? Well, the best that I can explain my conclusion is this: having a purpose in life involves the idea that you are meant to live for some specific reason and to bring something to the world. A spark isn’t your purpose, it’s what makes you want to live.
This is not necessarily a concept that we embrace as a society. From the time children are young we ask them what they want to be when they grow up – we are led to think we have some purpose in life. But Soul looks at things differently. Humans don’t have a predetermined path and you don’t have some big objective that you need to achieve. Life is about finding your spark, or moments of sparks. You don’t necessarily have to have a job that completely fulfills you, the perfect picket-fence house, the perfect life. Rather you should focus on those moments where life truly feels like it is worth living.
If forced to sum it up the message of Soul in one sentence I would say that “life is about the journey, not the destination.”
We are not born with a “purpose in life.” Again, this is a movie that doesn’t explicitly draw conclusions word for word like this. But this is what I have gathered to be the message that Soul is trying to get across. When one of the soul counselors realizes that Joe has made the mistake to think that a spark is someone’s purpose, they have this response: “A spark isn’t a soul’s purpose. Oh, you mentors and your passions. Your purposes. Your meanings of life. So basic.”
We can be happy and successful even when we are not doing what we think we are “born to do.” This is best highlighted in the barber shop scene. Dez is an amazing barber – he cuts hair well and gets along with all of the people who come in, so Joe tells 22 that Dez was “born to cut hair.” But Dez actually reveals that he wanted to be a veterinary. That’s not where life led him though. Instead of being defeated or feeling like he hasn’t fulfilled his purpose, he embraces his career as a barber and finds many things to love about it.
There is nothing wrong with “regular old living.” When 22 gets excited about life and says maybe their spark is walking or sky watching, Joe responds by saying “Those really aren’t purposes, 22. That’s just regular old living.” That’s something I think we greatly underestimate in our society. Maybe you don’t have your dream job or you don’t make a ton of money. Perhaps you didn’t go to an ivy league college (or to college at all). It doesn’t mean you can’t be happy, and it also doesn’t mean you were “meant” to be mediocre. Your life has value no matter what. Every human life has value. The idea that you are meant to do one thing actually seems harmful, because if you don’t achieve it life ends up feeling meaningless.
Life is about feeling things and experiencing sparks of joy where we can. If we don’t have a purpose, what is life about? Well, in simple terms, it seems to be just about living and enjoying moments in life. It’s about the taste of delicious food, the feel of a warm shower, the sensation of seeing fireworks, and hearing good music. It’s also about more intricate things, like helping someone else find a spark (for Joe, it can happen through teaching music), developing relationships with people, sharing our passions with others, and feeling the pleasure in accomplishing a task or becoming better at something you previously were not good at. For Joe, music is something that sparks joy, but it’s not the only thing.
We can get joy from others and shouldn’t always be selfish. This is more of an understated message but I felt it became more clear the second time I watched it. Throughout the movie Joe is a likeable guy, but you start to see that he can definitely be selfish. He’s been so focused on his music goals that he doesn’t seem to think much about other people. We see this in lots of little ways – when he seems fairly unconcerned about one of his students wanting to quit music, when 22 learns more about the barber he’s been seeing and talking to for years than he ever knew because he never asked, when we see the conflict with his mother, and even when he comments that he “doesn’t have time for a relationship.” Passions and hobbies are good, but even if we don’t have an overall purpose in life we can find a lot of reasons to live from interacting with other people.
We have personalities even before we are born. The “Earth Badge” that 22 needs to earn shows that we develop some sort of personality even before we are born. The souls are given personality traits like irritable, excitable, aloof. While life on earth certainly shapes their personalities more, there are some things they begin in. I think we see through this 22, who certainly has some personality but grows and develops after experiencing life on Earth.
We can be so focused on trying to get somewhere that we don’t appreciate where we are. This is best shown when Dorothea Williams tells Joe a story: “I heard this story about a fish. He swims up to this older fish and says, I’m trying to find this thing they call the ocean. ‘The ocean?’ says the older fish. ‘That’s what you’re in right now.’ ‘This?’ says the young fish. ‘This is water. What I want is the ocean.’” We might spend so much time looking for something bigger that we don’t realize what we already have.
We don’t know what happens next. If 2020 has taught us anything, I think it certainly taught us that. I know some people felt frustrated by the end of the movie because you don’t learn what path Joe decides to follow (full time musician or teacher?), and you don’t see where 22 ends up on Earth. But that’s kind of the point, really – we don’t know where life will take us but whatever it is, we should make life worth living.
The message I am NOT getting from Soul
For a bit it seemed like the movie could have gone in a different direction – I thought we might learn that Joe’s true purpose isn’t just music, but teaching music to kids. I have to say I am so glad they didn’t go this way with the message of Soul. Teachers are amazing people. Many people have that “teacher spark” and they are incredible. But it felt like it would be too neat of an ending for him to realize his purpose in life was helping others, and possibly even too cliche. It’s not that simple, and as someone who tried teaching and found it was not the right fit for them, I think that conclusion would not have been completely satisfying for me.
It would also completely change the message of the movie. If you come away thinking Joe’s purpose was to be a teacher rather than a musician, that’s a totally different philosophy that still focuses on having a purpose (just more along the lines of, “we don’t always know what our purpose is”). Rather, I think the message is that Joe could be a musician, a teacher, or something else – it doesn’t actually matter what he does but how he does it. I personally think both music and teaching help to give Joe joy, so I like to think that he decided to be a teacher but plays gigs on the side.
Other blog posts of interest:
Have you seen Soul? What do you think is the message of Soul?