Updated: Sep 6, 2021
[The following essay contains MAJOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
Like nearly all of Pixar’s work, Soul gets pretty goddamn existential for a “kids’ movie.” It somehow manages to tackle the subject of mortality even more directly than Coco, though its gorgeously realized depiction of the afterlife is a bit more... figurative than its predecessor’s. The film was not made to literally speculate on what awaits us after death, but rather to meditate on what it truly means to be “alive.”
Soul’s plot revolves entirely around life—both its premature cessation and its delayed beginning. The protagonist, aspiring musician Joe Gardner, desperately struggles to reunite with his corporeal form after a tragically sudden demise prevents him from achieving his lifelong dream of playing in a jazz quartet. To this end, he attempts to cheat the system, swapping places with 22, a centuries-old unborn soul that is as reluctant to leave the Great Before as Joe is to ascend to the Great Beyond. Ironically, however, he must first help the cynical spirit find the “Spark” that will inspire her to want to experience everything that humanity has to offer.
Inextricably interwoven into the fabric of this overarching theme is a surprisingly mature exploration of the double-edged nature of ambition. Joe mistakenly believes that the aforementioned “Spark” represents one's “purpose”; he’s always been singularly preoccupied with music, and therefore assumes that everybody has a similar “thing” that drives them. This central conflict is expressed most clearly when he confronts his mother about her consistent failure to support his interests and pursuits:
Music is all I think about from the moment I wake up in the morning to the moment I fall asleep at night[...] This isn’t about my career, it’s my reason for living. I’m just afraid that if I died today, then my life would have amounted to nothing.
Gradually, though, Joe begins to reassess this rather rigid and narrow-minded point-of-view. Over the course of his journey with 22, he realizes that his passion has become a dangerous obsession, blinding him to the fact that his life already has value and meaning—through his cherished memories, through his relationships, through his ability to teach others (thereby passing his skills on to the next generation).
Ultimately, an unprecedented act of selflessness convinces the powers-that-be to resurrect Joe. The viewer never learns what he decides to do with this miraculous second chance—Does he join the band full-time, or settle for a more stable job at the middle school? Does he reconnect with his ex-girlfriend? Does he reconcile with his estranged childhood chums?—and frankly, it doesn’t really matter. For the first time in his life, his path is unimpeded by doubt, insecurity... or regret.
And that makes all the difference.