Pixar’s Soul: Finding Meaning in Modern Life
Updated: Jan 28
As George Harrison said- What is Life! When I retreat into the forest, walk a little slower in the grocery store, let go of the clock and cuddle my partner, abandon the list of responsibilities and soak in sunshine instead... that's when i can breathe. Children laughing, leaves rustling, birds chirping- they remind me that life is only about living. Being in a moment is the only meaning. To experience emotion: pain, elation. I wrote the following paper about just that, and tied it to my all time favorite movie.
Pixar’s Soul: Finding Meaning in Modern Life
The human mind is built to find purpose in relationships, connection to nature, and group responsibility. While society requires no time interval to evolve and shift away from those things, the brain requires well over a million years to do so. So when modern life does shift, the human is forced to attempt rapid adaptation to newly proposed production based meanings of life. Society is pressured to think about living in the post industrial way while their inner workings remain much the same as they were thousands of years ago. This cognitive dissonance poses new questions to modern people. Modern people often end up looking for life's purpose in vocation and external reward, still resulting in feeling empty, alone, and wanting. This is seen in the 2020 Pixar animated film Soul through the main character, Joe Gardner. His inability to see the joys that are in front of him and his insistence on getting to the next best thing represent the struggles of many modern people. The film investigates life's biggest questions and lessons by following the collaborative journey and individual experiences of Joe and his foil character, unborn soul number 22.
Joe’s introduction to the audience is as an unfulfilled middle school band teacher with a passion for jazz piano. On the very day he is invited to go full time in this career, he receives a call requesting his performance with the famous “Dorothea Wiliams Quartet”. After this news, he is too excited to pay attention to his physical surroundings, and falls into a manhole. Joe’s soul immediately enters a conveyor belt to the afterlife but he finds his way off of it, puncturing the mesh of time and space. His body enters a holding pattern referred to as a coma. This is when he and 22 are united in a hypothetical waystation between dimensions called the “You Seminar” where the universe mistakenly assigns him to mentor her in preparation for life on earth. Joe is less determined to help her than he is to get himself back to earth to achieve his goal of performing in the “gig of a lifetime”. 22 agrees to help him since she is content with never living a life, having an all around pessimistic attitude towards the idea. But it is still Joe’s job as her mentor to combat her pessimism and find her “spark” so that she is permitted entry to the earth portal, which he can then take advantage of. But Joe tunes out when the universe explains the “spark” so neither he nor the audience knows what exactly the final step is to prepare for life. This misunderstanding, and Joe’s own misinterpretations of life’s messages, set the stage for the chaos that ensues and the lessons the audience and characters must learn.
Joe’s idea of the “spark” is that it is one’s purpose in life. Joe sees purpose as singular, vocational based and prize motivated (Sunde). His initial concept is that what we physically do in life, the job we work, and the things we create, are our purpose. He lives within the self indulgent idea that we must be praised (Sunde) and be exceptional to be worthy of legacy. This is a majorly modern concept that our culture embraces to promote economic productivity. And at first, this idea was reaffirmed at the “You Seminar”, where mentors are generally people like Mother Teresa, Copernicus, Mohammed Ali, Carl Jung, or Gandhi.
Then, in an attempt to reunite Joe’s soul with his body, 22 accidentally falls in his place and Joe’s soul lands in a cat. For the majority of the film, Joe is helping 22 navigate the world during their mission to rectify their situation. While in Joe’s shoes, 22 experiences everything for the first time. She catches a falling maple seed, gets a haircut, eats pizza, and has conversations with regular people, all with a childlike curiosity and appreciation. In the subway she stops to listen to a musician. The singer is surrounded in golden light and 22 stands enamored. Joe has likely walked through this subway hundreds of times, but he’s never felt the way she does in that moment. Her soul, unburdened by the norms and expectations of the society buzzing around her, was able to be still and embrace pure beauty with an open mind.
Despite Joe’s subjectively unexceptional life, it’s living in his shoes that finally actually gives 22 her “spark”. The audience is left to conclude that one’s spark is not a singular purpose, but the wonder and optimism necessary to go on living. His life served as a better mentor than hundreds of exceptional souls. This is because what she learned from the stillness and joy in the little things in life was greater than anything she could’ve learned from the theories or achievements of others. This is one important message for the audience to take to heart. The endless moments of wonder or love are more meaningful and purposeful than a lifetime of productivity or perfection. This lesson is one that American culture seldom embraces.
Another important message uncovered in this film is the danger of over productivity, obsession, and depression that so often consumes people especially those working in a capitalist system. “The Zone” is perhaps the most interesting setting in the film. It is an endless indigo desert split into two sections. In the sky amidst aurora-like ribbons, are the souls of people lost (in a positive way) in an activity they love. This is otherwise known as a flow state. In contrast, mindlessly grazing the desert below are lost souls, those who've become obsessed or depressed to the point that they are disconnected from life. One could argue that before his experience with 22 and consequential enlightenment, Joe was close to becoming a lost soul. 22 also becomes a lost soul when, after living through Joe and then having to return to the “You Seminar”, she retreats within herself. Her fears and insecurities are reaffirmed by external sources causing her to essentially give up. Without Joe’s apology, love, and encouragement, 22 would have struggled to come back to her true self and go on living her own life. This is an excellent example of what happens in a production based society when one member is neglected or overwhelmed. It requires pause and attention from the relationships and other connections to the world to bring someone back from being lost in the darkness.
At the end of the film, the jazz musician has a revelation. After returning to his body, and performing his dream gig, he is left still wanting. Dorothea Williams bestows on him one final piece of wisdom, that the grass is never greener on the other side and life is about embracing the current moment and knowing what’s right in front of you. Joe goes home and begins reflecting on the memories 22 stored in his mind. He experiences the fascination and delight that she felt. While reminiscing on these moments, Joe thinks back further to find the moments in which he felt that same way, small points in his life before he became so obsessed with a final goal. The memories he recalls are simple, but he is truly present, and actively participating in appreciation and love. Joe realizes that he’s lived a beautiful life and never had to have a spectacular end game to be happy. He finds that 22 was his mentor as much as he was her’s. So he enters “The Zone” to find her lost soul, right his wrongs, and sacrifice himself to save her. This is his first selfless act for the entire film. Their experience together inspired the universe, and Joe is gifted the opportunity to go on living. He embraces this opportunity, abandons external pressures and internal expectations, and promises himself to live with true presence and peace.
In this film, Pixar dissects the meaning of life in a modern world. True purpose is outlined through the idea of the “spark” from multiple perspectives, the concept of lost souls, and the life experience of a character unburdened by social expectations. The message to the audience is that purpose is not in external productivity or legacy, it is within, and just requires unlocking.
Sunde, Joseph. “THE GIFT OF 'REGULAR OLD LIVING': PIXAR'S 'SOUL' ON WORK AND VOCATION.” States News Service, 15 Feb. 2021.