When it comes to dealing with dark and deep themes and story points, Pixar is here to make you weep like a child. No one has caused more people to help than Pete Docter between just Inside Out and Up. With Soul there was a good chance that Pixar was going to explore some more deep and dark themes because we're quite literally talking about death. This whole movie is about the idea of dying unfulfilled and with unfinished business. There were a bunch of ways that this ending could have gone, and Pixar toyed with some darker ones. However, to get into it, we're going to have to throw up a SPOILER WARNING for the end of Soul. If you haven't seen the movie yet, don't read beyond this picture of Jerry and Terry being fabulous.
At the end of Soul, Joe makes the decision to give 22 her Earth patch back so she can finally go to Earth and live her life. She spent some time in Joe's body and has finally learned that Earth is not nearly as bad as she thought it was. Joe and 22 take hands, and he goes with her as far as he can, and she flies down to Earth to be born. Joe, who by giving up the patch has died, gets ready to go to The Great Beyond when a Jerry stops him. The Jerry tells Joe that they "are in the business of inspiration but rarely find themselves inspired," and since Joe, with the sacrifice of his own life so 22 could live, is given another chance. We see Joe emerging from his home, saying he will live his life to the fullest now, and we never learn what that takes. Does Joe keep teaching? Does he go on tour? Some combination of both? We don't know; all we know is that he's not going to waste a minute of it.
It's a great ending, but it's quite obvious that Soul could have gone another direction with it. I personally thought that Joe was not going to come back to life, and according to an interview with co-director and co-writer Kemp Powers with Entertainment Tonight, that was on the table.
"We have versions of the ending where Joe does not go back to his body, where he actually stays dead. We have versions of the ending where you see Joe on Earth a year later. Man, that ending sparked more debate than I think any other element of the film."
Director and writer Pete Docter went on to say that there was a version of Joe staying dead in Soul where we got to see what the Great Beyond actually looked like and decided that can of worms was probably not something they should open.
"That version he was, like, at peace and went in. But there was another version where he actually went to The Great Beyond, there was a scene there and then he returned. And we realized we were probably playing with fire, even though it was pretty esoteric. I don't think it was too explicit in terms of, "This is what the afterlife looks like!" It was more abstract. But still, we decided, "Eh, probably dangerous." And not ultimately right for the film, most importantly."
Powers explained that there is another version of Joe staying dead where he became a permanent mentor at the Your Seminar because he was the one who changed it. Powers said that was "a fun exploration" for Soul's ending that ultimately didn't work.
"The version with Joe not going back to his body, he basically ended up as a mentor in the You Seminar, but a repeat mentor. He stayed and ended up being, like, the best mentor ever, and he introduced lots of new ideas to the You Seminar. He kind of revolutionized it. It was very cute and very funny and it pissed some people off, but you know, you learn through trying. It didn't work, but it was a fun exploration."
Joe isn't the only unknown fate we have in the movie. We also don't know what happened to 22 or what kind of life she leads. We don't even know if 22 ended being a she at all since the voice was a choice that she made while in her soul form. Docter said that they explored the idea of 22 and Joe meeting when she was human but decided that it was better for the ending of Soul to leave it open-ended.
"We did a couple of 'em, but the one that I was thinking of was that Joe is a teacher and he hears a knock at the door and there's a kid who's like, "I really don't like piano." The mom's like, "Come on, Mr. Garner is going to teach you," and she does these little things that Joe's like, "Wait a second. I know who that is…" And yet, somehow it wasn't satisfying. It just wasn't satisfying. We had a couple of other ones too."
In the end, Soul's ending was plenty devastating without the visual of our main character dead over his piano in his apartment alone. It wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility for Pixar to go for an ending that dark but Joe worked hard and sacrificed everything. He earned that other chance, and he won't be wasting it. That ending seems much less bittersweet and much more uplifting.
A musician who has lost his passion for music is transported out of his body and must find his way back with the help of an infant soul learning about herself.
Soul, directed by Pete Docter and co-directed by Kemp Powers, stars Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Daveed Diggs, Phylicia Rashad, and John Ratzenberger. It was released on Disney+ on December 25th.