‘Soul’ is not Pixar’s first foray into metaphysics. They previously showed their willingness to deal with heavy subjects using a light touch in ‘Inside Out,’ a film that can be considered a spiritual predecessor of Pete Docter’s 4th directorial venture. The animation studio is known for taking universally recognizable themes and then building unconventional stories around them.
From an elderly man finally making the journey he promised his late wife to a rat finding its purpose in the kitchen of a French restaurant to a robot falling in love on a desolate planet—all their films resonate with this perfect melding of familiarity and ingenuity. In ‘Soul,’ this manifests in the exploration of the concept of life. SPOILERS AHEAD!
Soul Plot Synopsis
Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a second-generation jazz musician and pianist who works as a middle school music teacher just to keep the lights on. His real dream is to become an on-stage performer. He has devoted all his life to music and hasn’t received much in return. That starts to change when one of his old students, Curley (Questlove), offers him an opportunity to audition for the renowned saxophonist, Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett).
Joe aces the audition, securing the gig. But later that day, he falls through an open utility hole and into a coma, while his soul is transported to an automated cosmic ramp that leads towards the Great Beyond or the afterlife. Refusing to accept that his life is over right when it was just about to take off, he manages to leap out from the ramp and lands on the seemingly endless plains known as the Great Before, a hypothetical place that serves as an orientation center for newborn souls.
Joe makes a deal with 22 (Tina Fey), an ingrained cynic that has been in the Great Before for a long time, refusing to go down to Earth. During her time in the Great Before, she has filled up her badge with all kinds of traits. Joe will help her acquire the only thing she is missing: a spark. In return, she will give him the badge, which Joe can use to return to his body.
After Joe fails to ignite the spark inside 22 with various activities, they go to the Zone, a special area in the Great Before where the border between the metaphysical and real worlds is the thinnest. This allows people in the mortal world to access the Great Before whenever they go into a deep trance while doing something they are passionate about.
With the help of three mystics, Joe manages to get back to earth, but while his soul gets planted in a therapy cat, 22, who Joe has accidentally brought along, gets implanted into Joe’s body. Initially, both horrified and overwhelmed by the notion that she is now on Earth, a place she has dreaded the most, 22 soon begins to change after experiencing music and other facets of life through Joe’s perspective.
When Moonwind (Graham Norton), one of the mystics, starts preparing for a ritual that will return Joe to his body, 22 suddenly realizes that she has come to love life. When she tries to escape, and Joe gives chase, they are both caught by Terry (Rachel House), the cosmic entity in charge of counting souls before they immerse into the Great Beyond, and taken back to the Great Before.
Soul Ending: What is the Spark?
All his life, Joe has thought that music is his purpose for living and built up his hopes and aspirations around that notion. In his pursuit of becoming an on-stage jazz pianist, he overlooked that he was an exceptional teacher and has likely inspired countless students into choosing music as a profession. He has been so consumed with jazz that he didn’t realize that life was passing him by at a rapid pace.
He has given up on love, friendship, and even family and has little to show for his existence. Only after he sees someone else live his life and appreciate what he has long ignored does he eventually learn to value them. As a maple seed falls on her hand and Moonwind prepares for the switch between her and Joe, 22 has an epiphany.
While death and suffering are perpetual parts of existence, the living should not worry about these eventualities. Instead, all its secrets and meanings can be found in each moment and how we choose to spend them. This sudden enlightenment fills her with the desire to live, which, in turn, adds the spark to her badge. When Terry transports them back to the Great Before, she and Joe still believe that the spark is related to life’s purpose.
Joe claims that 22 has gained the spark only because she was living his life and turning his purpose into hers, prompting her to reluctantly and angrily throw the badge at him. Joe’s own epiphany begins when one of the Jerry’s, the caretakers of the Great Before, corrects him by saying that the spark is not the purpose but simply the willingness to live.
After Joe returns to earth, he gets everything that he has ever wanted: success as a pianist as well as his mother’s recognition. However, he soon realizes that even success is prone to repetition. In the last act, the film asks questions about what lies beyond the fulfillment of one’s supposed purpose. If all of us are bound to end up on the grand ramp, then what is the point of obsessing about one particular thing all your life and ignoring the rest?
When he finds that maple seed that 22 caught when she was in his body, he realizes that 22 has earned the spark, not through his love for music but her profound desire to live. He decides to go to the Great Before and give the badge back to her. He plays the piano, letting his music guide him to the Zone. Once there, he learns from Moonwind that 22 has become one of the lost souls.
He infiltrates deep into 22’s psyche through the maple seed and pulls her out of the nightmarish prison she has created for herself. After he gives back 22 her badge, and she descends to Earth to begin her life, Joe discovers that he is not afraid any longer. He has lived his life and achieved his dream. Now, he is at peace with himself. But the Jerrys, having seen his incredible sacrifice, have decided to give him another chance.
Deeply thankful, he promises that he will live every moment, before stepping back into the mortal world. Like most Pixar films, ‘Soul’ ends on an uplifting note, assuring its audience that their favorite characters will be alright and still keeping their future open to new possibilities. 22 might not remember the long time she has spent at the Great Before. Someday, she and Joe might encounter each other in the mortal world, not realizing why they are suddenly feeling a certain sense of Deja Vu.
Although music will always be an important part of Joe’s life, he will now ensure that his existence has enough space for other things. A woman named Lisa comes up several times during conversations between Joe and 22. She is apparently the only thing in his head aside from Jazz. Finally, free of the burden he imposed on himself because of his music, Joe might have the time and courage to seek her out again.
What Does the Post-Credits Scene Mean?
After the credits have stopped rolling, Terry appears on the screen, berating the audience who might be still there and telling them that the movie is over and they should go home. Unlike other Disney ventures, post-credit sequences do not frequently occur in Pixar films. Terry is one of the fascinating supporting characters of the movie.
After he realizes that there is an anomaly in the counting of the souls, he discovers that it is because Joe has jumped off the ramp and into the Great Before. He is obsessive about his job to the point that he chases Joe and 22 to Earth and later brings both of them back. He also wants a prize for his accomplishments and gets angry when the Jerrys question his work. These are unmistakably human characteristics. Of all the cosmic entities, Terry is inarguably the most human.
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