Why “Soul” Is Good For Your Soul

Still from

Athena ScalziDisney Pixar’s newest movie Soul scored 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, and with a rating like that, it should be easy to see why.

Except for me, it wasn’t, at first.

The first time I watched Soul, I didn’t like it. I didn’t really dislike it, either, but it was just very okay to me. I didn’t understand what the hype was, or why it was so highly rated. I thought it was kind of weird, I didn’t like the characters, and the whole before-and-after-life set-up they had going on wasn’t really doing it for me.

But the second time I watched it, I loved it. How could I have missed it all the first time around? It just hit totally different the second time.

So, I’m going to tell you why it’s so amazing and why you should watch it (or rewatch it)! Also, here is your OFFICIAL SPOILER WARNING.

In case you haven’t seen Soul (which if you’re reading this I hope you have because, again, spoilers), it is about a guy named Joe Gardner trying to make it as a jazz musician, who is currently unsatisfied with his band teaching job. After landing a huge gig, he dies  — well, not really, because his body is alive and in a coma, but his soul goes to the Great Beyond, so, essentially, dead.

Not ready to be dead, he tries to escape and lands in the Great Before, where souls exist before they head to Earth. There, he meets 22, a soul that has never been able to complete their Earth sticker and be born as a living person. They have to work together in order for Joe to get back to his life. Hijinks ensue, 22 ends up getting put into Joe’s body, and they have to continue working together to get Joe back in his body and 22 back to the Great Before.

Now that you’re all caught up, here we go!

Soul is one of the few Pixar movies without a villain, which allows it to focus on the message of the story, along with characters and their development through the film (Even if you count Terry, the existential soul counter, as a villain, they were really only a small part of the movie, and they were just doing their job and didn’t really do anything to be antagonistic on purpose).

For most of the movie, I thought Joe was a terrible main character. He only cared about himself; even when he did something “nice,” it was only to benefit himself. Originally, he didn’t actually care about 22, he just wanted them to find their “spark” – assumed to be their reason for living – so he could use their completed Earth sticker for his own gain. He was so unsatisfied with his life, that it caused him to be blinded by what he thought would make him happy.

Joe and 22 and Terry, in a still from

On the other hand, we have 22, who is utterly uninterested in what life has to offer and is convinced they wouldn’t like being alive. Joe tries to convince them of all the good things Earth has in store for them (again, for his own benefit, because if 22 wants to live they’ll try harder to get their Earth sticker), but nothing really sounds that appealing. 22 asks, “Is all this living really worth dying for?” It’s a fair question. Is all the hardship we face, all the struggle we go through, really worth it? Is existing worth the effort? It is only when 22 experiences these things for themselves that they see that maybe there is something to this whole living thing.

22 feels very relatable to me. They can’t seem to find that certain something that they really enjoy in life. 22 has no spark, and not having a spark is part of what makes them not want to try out living. What’s the point of living if you have no spark? If you don’t have a spark, then what even is your purpose?

And that’s where the message of the movie comes in. Pixar movies always carry a heavy, emotional message that can sometimes make them seem like they’re too sad to be “kids’ movies.” However, I think Soul has an absolutely perfect message for both adults and children:

Life isn’t about fulfilling some great purpose bestowed upon you by the universe, it’s about living. It’s about enjoying being alive and finding things that make you enjoy the wonder of the world.

This spark that 22 is searching for isn’t found by eons of trying out soccer or painting, it is only found when they go out and live for themselves. They try delicious food, see the sky, feel the breeze, so many little things that seem so insignificant in our daily lives but are actually essential to the enjoyment of life. At first, all the sights and sounds are overwhelming to 22 and they despise living. It is in the quiet moments, like when they catch a helicopter leaf falling from a tree, that they gain the desire to live.

Part of what I like about the ending of Soul is that we don’t get to know what filled in the last spot on 22’s Earth sticker. Not even 22 knows. And it doesn’t bug me not to know, because it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that 22 wanted to live. Why is it important what the spark is? They’ll find out eventually. What was really important was that 22 possessed a new-found zest for life that wasn’t there before.

As for Joe, he becomes a good guy. Did it take the entire movie? Yes. But it happened eventually. Honestly, it was never that Joe was a bad guy, he was just so wrapped up in himself and achieving what he thought was his true purpose, that it overshadowed every other aspect of his life. Joe was so obsessed in getting the thing he thought would make him happy, that he didn’t try to be happy in other fields of his existence.

It is only after he gets what he thought he wanted, that he realized he was still unfulfilled. And that’s because he was convinced this thing he sought after was his only purpose for existing, when really it was just his spark that is supposed to be something you enjoy in life, not your overall purpose.

It was only after Joe saw 22 live his life, that he discovered what he should be doing with his. 22 was an inspiration to Joe to appreciate the small things in life, and see the beauty that he was too blinded to notice before. It took a pair of fresh eyes to see what he’d been missing in his life.

Joe became truly good with his ultimate sacrifice. Joe was entirely consumed with getting back to his life throughout the entire movie, his empty, sad life; but after seeing 22 live so fully in just one short day, he realized the things he thought were important weren’t really what life was about. He was willing to sacrifice his own life to give 22 a shot at experiencing it for themselves.

In a world where life is all about gaining, in our society where “the grind never stops”, it’s important to take time to focus on the little things, like 22 did. Catch a falling leaf, enjoy a slice of New York pizza, watch the clouds go by. Do your best to find happiness in the small things, the things that you’d miss if it disappeared forever. Like rainbows, and stars, and a piece of candy. Just try to enjoy it to the fullest.

Funnily enough, the reason I didn’t like Soul the first time was because I simply wasn’t paying much attention. Of course, that’s enough to make any movie confusing and unenjoyable. I missed all the subtle beauty of the movie; the wonderful message it conveyed was completely lost to me. Much like Joe, I was too distracted to see the little things. These little things, these little scenes and moments I had missed the first time, were what made the movie so amazing.

The movie ends on a such a beautiful line. “I’m going to live every minute of it.” That’s what we should all do. Because that’s what life is all about, that’s our great purpose:



21 Comments on “Why “Soul” Is Good For Your Soul”

  1. My chief complaint with Soul (and to be clear on the balance I liked this movie a lot) is that it falls back on the trope of “those who can’t do teach”. It’s shown repeatedly throughout the film that Joe is actually a good mentor and teacher but the film constantly shows teaching and mentorship as a consolation prize.

    I recognize that the point of the movie is that we should see beauty around us without worrying quite so much about a grander purpose. But why did that message have to be delivered with such a large dose of “Man teaching middle-school music really sucks right? Who would ever want to do that?”

  2. I only read the beginning of the review, but that’s a good thing.

    I haven’t seen the movie yet. The beginning of your review told me enough to decide that I wanted to see the movie. Then your very clear spoiler warning told me to stop. So now the movie hasn’t been ruined for me.

    It’s surprising how many people can’t do that. The spoiler warning, if it even exists, is integrated into the text such that by the time I realize “oh, I should stop reading” I’ve already read the main plot twist.

    There’s a subtle difference between writing for self-expression and writing to convey something to an audience. Good on you for grasping that.

  3. Oddly, I think you hit the point for me with many movies lately: I’m not really paying attention!
    At home there are all these other things vying for my attention, I never really immerse in anything on TV. This is what I miss about the movie theaters (that I didn’t even realize)!

  4. Top notch review, Athena. Thanks.

    I think Soul is one of those movies that needs rewatching. Pixar movies are so layered I have to give each several views to catch everything—the in-jokes, easter eggs, and background details alone!

  5. I showed the film to my (almost) 4 year old kid less than a week after my grandmother passed away, and had to translate the whole thing to Hebrew. There were parts I couldn’t speak due to the fact my eyes were filled with tears. A beautiful film and a wonderful review, thank you Athena.

  6. @Matt
    I think it’s accurate to say that Joe saw teaching as a consolation prize. And it’s explicit that he was so wrapped up in being unsatisfied with his life that he couldn’t even appreciate that he was a good teacher. I don’t think the rest of the characters, or the narrative as a whole, viewed teaching as a consolation prize.

  7. Yeah I think the “can’t do, teach” thing is clearly meant to be a trap Joe has fallen into and it’s no coincidence that one of the very first clear impacts that 22 has on Joe’s perception is when the student comes to quit. Joe wants to intervene but can’t because he been catted, then 22 accidentally uses reverse psychology to let the student see what they’re missing in their enjoyment. Which is also some foreshadowing of what 22 is going to do for Joe.

    One of the things that I think also makes Soul work well is that Joe and 22 inhabit opposite roles for each other. From go this is true in their desires – Joe desperately wants to get back to living and 22 wants no part of it. But they also inhabit alternative ways of living from each other. Joe is always looking over that horizon and not seeing what’s right in front of him, 22 is aware of what and who is around him and interested in them. It is 22 who has the first real non-jazz conversation with Joe’s barber.

    Then the movie plays with interesting inversions there too! The old saw is that you miss the forest for the trees but the movie chooses to express it with a more explicit tale of a fish who can’t see the ocean because all they notice is all this water. But that’s also the opposite of what Joe has going on – he actually is missing all “the water” and not seeing it. Joe is oblivious to other people and their lives but 22’s enthusiasm for living a life is squelched by other people (Joe) being crappy. Joe’s journey isn’t successfully completed – both in personal development and in getting to return to life – until he demonstrates loving support to 22.

    Even the closest thing to a villain the movie has, Terry, is guilty of missing the big picture because of an obsessive focus on minutiae. And all it takes to make Terry happy is a personal accolade they demand be given to them and a tiny secret tweak on the abacus. External validation and a shift in perception, not reality.

  8. thank you Athena.. like you I was initially disappointed in the movie. Your review made me realize it is really an important movie in these days of ‘do work you love’ and similar lies about ‘passion’ for your work. These lies translate into disappointment at best, stealing of labor at worst, as witness the big tech companies’ treatment of their employees. There’s a lot of life outside work and a lot of living to be done even when your job isn’t everything you want.

    The big turning point for Joe seemed to be after his triumphant performance didn’t transform his life..

    I was a little freaked out that 22 seemed to be headed toward birth somewhere in the interior of Asia Major.. had to wonder what kind of a life that was going to be, as a Sherpa or Dalit..

    I subscribed to Disney+ only to watch this movie, as jazz band teachers are close to my heart.. one named Joe taught my son. Joe took his better students to play with him at a downtown jazz club which looked much like the Half Note in the movie, I have bad video of my son playing upright base there. Minor complaint, I could have used more jazz in the movie and less of the weird 1950s animations of Terries.. ha.

  9. Athena, I think you’ve gotten to the heart of the matter with your review. I enjoyed Soul, and found its conclusion moving enough to make me think about how I approach my own life. Might watch it again just to catch more. Pixar is generally good at having stories work on more than one level.

    There were also a lot of nice little jokes. E.g., pizza rat!

  10. This is where I see that my policy of reading/seeing/playing everything a year or more after everybody else has its downside (when coupled with my preference for not knowing too much going in).

    It may have other downsides.


  11. I was going to give the movie a pass but, after reading your piece, I will reconsider.

    Curious: what prompted you to watch it again? Self motivated or as a result of a conversation with someone else?

  12. I found your description of Joe in your first watching interesting, because you could apply a similar description to Woody in the first Toy Story. The primary driver of that plot is his selfishness in being sidelined as Andy’s favorite toy. While he puts on an air of trying to keep everything going well for Andy with the other toys once Buzz comes in you see that he’s not trying to make Andy happy for Andy’s sake, but to fulfill his own need to be played with.

  13. my policy of reading/seeing/playing everything a year or more

    Ahahaha… that is saner than mine…

    Reading… Preferably, the series needs to be complete before I begin reading the first book. If it is slow in being written and between releases, I have to start reading at book 1, through to the latest release…

    Television… The series absolutely needs to have completed it’s full run… And, if the final season “jumped-the-shark” or failed in it’s execution, then I won’t even start… (here is looking at you, “Game of Thrones”) – as well, if it is based on books, I have to read them first… and their series has to be complete (so… two strikes for “Game of Thrones”)

    Movies… It depends, but typically prior to a new release, there will be a binge of catching up on at least the last couple…

  14. But.. back to Soul… Excellent review, in my opinion this is the absolute best movie of 2020… Could this be the year an animated feature wins “Best Picture”?

  15. We watched COCO the next night. Different culture, , similar tropes. Good for all of the reasons you mentioned. Pixar has really stepped up with story over the usual glitz and effects.

  16. I was feeling kind of down in the dumps last week. Not really sad about anything in particular, but not excited about anything either. Then I watched Soul with my wife (my first time, her second) and it turned my entire mood around. I ended the night feeling just solidly happy. This movie was exactly what I needed.

    Also, I want to give major props to the art design of Terry and the other Great Before characters. They are amazing looking, and the animators found some really cool things that they could do with them.

  17. I loved Soul (it passed the household test: I cried all through the end credits) and would watch it again in a heartbeat.

    And in terms of the “those who can do, those who can’t, teach?” thing? I think the only one who doesn’t value what he does as a teacher is Joe–not because he can’t “do”–but because he sees teaching as proof that he hasn’t succeeded. He’s wrong on both counts, of course.

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