SOUL Review: What Does “Spark” Really Mean, Anyway?


Battling pandemic precautions, Pixar released Soul on December 25, streaming on Disney+. The movie’s main character, Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), is a middle school band teacher whose real wish is to play for a jazz band. After getting a gig with a famous saxophonist, he falls into what the movie dubs “The Great Before”–where a soul receives its personality before going to Earth. Although he tries to explain the mistake, Gardner becomes responsible for a new soul that hasn’t qualified for a trip to Earth as a mentor. 

Soul 22, voiced by Tina Fey, hasn’t yet found her spark. A label for a unique combination of talent, purpose, and identity, all souls are required to have a “spark” allowing them to journey to Earth. 

When Joe and 22 mistakenly end up on Earth, their journey together leads them through the stereotypical and beloved parts of New York City to rediscover joy in many parts of their lives. In a race to “tally up the numbers” of souls left behind, abstract individuals named Terry and Jerry try to find Joe and 22. The race leads them to explore New York City and the Great Before to find 22’s spark, and the movie concludes with both individuals being changed by the other.

On the surface, the movie is a complex, funny story about one jazz player in New York City, but many topics are explored beyond the plot. The movie explores music as a foundation of  human connection, specifically jazz. One of the moments where the audience shares in this journey is when Gardner encounters one of his former students, another player in a jazz band. The student shares how much music motivated him to continue his education, and Gardner is shocked. Gardner’s belief that playing jazz music is his only spark leads him on a journey of self-realization throughout the movie and questions the value of placing one’s identity in a specific purpose or career goal.

Another issue explored can be found in an area of the Great Before that features souls who have lost their spark. When 22 and Gardner end up there in an attempt to escape being caught, they find a group of souls freeing the lost ones, who are unable to escape. In the scene, the group of laid back travelers frees a white-collar worker who suddenly realizes he’s been missing out on life’s important moments. Pixar’s use of visual cues for broad topics like depression and anxiety seems to be an attempt to destigmatize conversations around mental health and serves to broaden the understanding for children and adults alike of the challenges other people face within their own emotions.

Soul is a wholesome, family-friendly movie that left me wanting to watch it again. It’s the kind of movie that would make me cry happy tears and think about questions the movie raises about purpose after the final scene. I would highly recommend it!