SOUL: Is the Meaning of Life As Simple as ‘Jazzing’?

Let’s dish up something cinematically positive for the new year, shall we?

Okay, how about some Heaven Can Wait. A bit of The Good Place. Some influence of Hayao Miyazaki. And a dash of Mr. Holland’s Opus.

Now sprinkle in some buddy comedy, a teacher-mentor story where both learn from one another, an examination of existential questions, and a love letter to jazz.

And finally, that magic feel-good ingredient which assaults those tear ducts like finely cut onions – PIXAR.

Mix well.

Voila! It gives us Soul, ready to consume on Disney Plus. And it goes down smooth.

Soul Food

Under the proven direction of Pete Docter (Up, Inside Out), Soul is a tale of a junior high band teacher, Joe Gardner, who harbors big dreams of being a “legit” jazz musician.

When we meet Joe (Jamie Fox), he is at an impasse. He was just offered a full time position at the school, which his mother (Phylicia Rashad) urges him to accept, as mothers are want to do. Steady income! Health insurance! A pension!

But … he isn’t so sure.

He doesn’t feel as if he is getting through to his students, who aren’t exactly the most naturally gifted bunch, save one. Is teaching, instead of “living the dream,” a form of settling? Admitting defeat? Does that mean his life was meaningless?

Things seem to turn around for Joe when a former student, Curly (Questlove) contacts him about a one-night gig, playing piano for popular and established musician Dorothea Williams (Angela Basset). Finally, the potential BIG BREAK.

It’s a break, all right, in the form of an accident involving distracted happy walking delirium, a manhole, and ultimate demise. Morbid, I know. But, fear not, things will brighten up. This is PIXAR.

Before and After

So, Joe finds himself in a line waiting on The Great Beyond. NOPE! NOPE! NOPE! He retreats and falls into the…. The Great Before? Right. It is a place “where new souls get their personalities, quirks and interests before they go to earth.” Where, guided by a mentor, they gain their spark (purpose?).

ASIDE – The Beforelife is far from a new idea for me. When I was a kid, the idea of simply not existing really bothered me! It kept me up at night. Thinking on the concept of a Beforelife proved a weird comfort. – END OF ASIDE.

Joe seems to have found a way to cheat death – a loophole in the form of 22 (Tina Fey), a young soul who isn’t keen on the idea of going to the land of the living. And so the two strike a deal. In exchange for giving him her “pass” to earth, he will arrange for her to stay where she is.

Naturally things don’t go according to plan and a snafu ends up with her in his old body and him in a cat (no great spoiler, considering the trailers give this away). To further complicate matters, Terry (Rachel House), a sort of accountant for The Great Beyond, notes that a number is off and is in hot pursuit of the duo!

Joe still has his goal of maintaining the suddenly more complicated commitment to his gig and 22 – now in Joe’s body, remember? – has decided there may be something to living after all, particularly after experiencing pizza and other simple pleasures in life. Her new goal is to discover her purpose.

The Docter is In

This film is different from most other cartoons in that it seems to be primarily geared towards adults in its metaphysical concepts. But even still, it has that light comedic touch which makes these ideas accessible to children, particularly with regards to death and what may come after. Heavy stuff. And rather impressive.

Whereas Inside Out personified emotional traits, Soul does something similar with the essence of personhood.

It’s no coincidence that director Pete Docter also helmed Inside Out, an equally multilayered film from Pixar. Whereas Inside Out personified emotional traits, Soul does something similar with the essence of personhood.

The animation is gorgeous, especially with its visual interpretation of the Afterlife and the colorful Great Before and its inhabitants. The jazzy musical score – credited to Jon Baptiste and Nine Inch Nails duo Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor – is memorable.


How ambitious is Soul? Well, let’s put it this way: It tries to tackle none other than THE PURPOSE OF LIFE. A question so philosophical and heady that I can’t help but type it in all caps.

Jazzing. It’s a word that Joe throws around a lot in the movie. Improvisation is important to blues and jazz. It typically has predefined chord progressions which lends well to creative expression. “Music and life operate by very different rules,” Joe says. But is that true though?

I missed something earlier in the movie, as I suspect most viewers will. It was a small, seemingly insignificant moment. But that was sort of the point. A big moment disguised as a small moment. And I loved the revisit and the reveal. Talk about a WOW moment! Look for it.

The movie poses the question: Is a spark and a purpose one and the same? To answer that would go deep into spoiler territory, but keep the question in mind as you watch.

All I will say about the resolution is that it was open-ended. Some viewers don’t like that and understandably so, but in this case, I can think of a no more appropriate way to leave things!

Let’s Move:

To recap:

As you watch Soul, ask yourself the following questions…

  • What does it mean to be “jazzing” as we go through life?
  • What little things leave the greatest impact?
  • Is our “spark” the same thing as our “purpose?”

Have you watched Soul yet? Share what you learned in the comments below!

Where to Watch

Soul is currently available for streaming on Disney Plus.

Soul (2020)

Director: Pete Doctor, Kemp Powers

Screenwriters: Pete Doctor, Mike Jones, Kemp Powers

Cast: Jamie Fox, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Phylicia Rashad

Rated: PG (thematic elements and some language)


  1. Unwanted Life

    I wondered what this film was meant to be about, I hadn’t seen any advertising for it, but I had seen it was available to watch. Can Disney release an animated film where someone doesn’t die as part of the film’s opening plot? Anyway, thanks for filling in the blanks about this film

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      Scott Harrison Rees

      Right??! If anything, the “death scene” feels more like something out of Looney Tunes than anything else. Kids shouldn’t find it as traumatic as, say, the scene with Bambi’s mom or Simba’s dad. But anyways, hey, you’re welcome!

  2. Tanya

    I was wondering about this one when I heard the premise, and I agree that it is probably geared more towards adults with the metaphysical stuff. The animation is incredible! Great review!

  3. Natascha

    First, let me take a moment to say that it’s insane how beautiful you write… Really, you’re a talented writer! That aside, I didn’t see this movie yet, but I absolutely love it too when cartoons have a philosophical or moral lesson behind the story. I will put this movie definitely on my list 🙂 Personally, I’m obsessed with the movie Coco, which is about the after life. Would really recommend that if you’re into this one!

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  4. Sarah Milks

    And now that I’ve watched the movie, I have also finally read your blog. Great synopsis of a great film. As someone who has struggled with the idea that until I’m *insert something to do with music or writing here*, I’m not enough, this film spoke to me. The fish story that Dorothea references hit deepest, I think. We’re so busy thinking that what we have isn’t spectacular enough, that we miss the actual spectacularity of what’s around us. This isn’t just water, my friend. It’s the ocean!

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