What is a soul? Is it a figment of our imagination? Is it something that arises from the billions of neurons within each human brain? Whatever it may be, if souls exist, what is their purpose?
To Pete Docter, writer and director of Pixar’s Soul, our ethereal spirits exist in some liminal cloud-like space between life and the “Great Beyond.” In the film, each soul appears soft and translucent, like a floating thought bubble, which soon merges with the birth of a physical human being.
It’s only after our protagonist, Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), falls down a sewer hole and enters the Great Beyond that he realizes the nature of his soul. The film conceptualizes souls as metaphysical, which give rise to our consciousness through emotions and feelings. Joe’s elated when he’s given his shot as a nightclub jazz pianist, and then distraught when he loses his chance. He enters an existential crisis and considers his life meaningless if he cannot become a famous musician. Docter and the film seem to suggest that Joe is focusing on the wrong thing.
His life—or his soul—isn’t about becoming a jazz musician or fulfilling any other type of preordained “purpose.” Instead, life is a place to find and experience joy in the moment and in the smallest of things thrown one’s way. It’s found in the savoury smell of a New York pizza shop, or the sight of a twirling maple leaf, or the connection you spark with your local barber, empathizing with his or her experiences. Soul depicts this and more, crafting a sensory overload of all we could enjoy seeing, touching, tasting, and experiencing every day yet take for granted.
We can take a lesson from Joe’s story. In our waking life, some of us will become frustrated, even hostile, after we spill coffee on our suit and miss work, or get rejected on a university application, or get stood up on a date. These intangible and often uncontrollable events create conflict and cloud our ability to tackle our goals or feel gratitude for simply being alive.
By fixating on purpose, we lose our sight for what matters. The film encourages us to move past this fixation and, instead, make the most of all that life has to offer. So, what’s in a soul? Whether it’s metaphysical, solely biological, or something else entirely is of less importance, as far as Docter is concerned.
The film begs its protagonist, and us, to do some soul-searching—an important exercise and a resonating act for many people while the world remains closed and we remain isolated. Luckily with Soul, the answer to life is far less elusive and far more hopeful than we might believe—it’s in your sight and within your reach.