Soul has struck a jazz-infused chord with Disney+ viewers during its premiere-week run over the holidays. Pixar’s tale of a musician learning to appreciate life comes at the end of a year when nearly everyone’s ready for a feel-good story that celebrates second chances.
The way things played out for Soul's main character Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) on the screen turned out to be immensely satisfying, not least because it’s up to viewers to imagine the next chapter in his story. But, as the film’s creators are revealing in the wake of the movie’s straight-to-streaming release, Joe’s new lease on life, so to speak, isn’t the only way his story could have turned out.
Pixar weighed more than one alternate ending for Joe and his similarly conflicted friend 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), endings that might’ve put a more tidy bow on each of their stories…but would have perhaps answered more questions than the movie really needed (not to mention being a bit of a downer). If you’ve not yet improvised some time to catch the movie, be cautioned that spoilers lie ahead. But if you want to find out how life could have turned out for Joe and 22, Pixar’s answers are pretty intriguing.
**Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers for Soul below, so scroll further at your own risk!**
Joe’s Earthly life ends early in the movie, leading him to the in-between realm of The Great Before — the place where souls acquire their final personalities before heading to Earth. It’s there that he meets 22, launching two of Soul’s biggest plot points: getting Joe a second chance at a life on Earth, and giving 22 a chance to see that she might not quite be ready, after all, to stake that final claim in the hereafter.
After a mishap that does put the pair back on Earth — Joe in the body of therapy cat Mr. Mittens; and 22 in the body of, well, Joe — each of them begins to see that they never fully appreciate the life they once had. Joe eventually does get a chance to return to his Earthly life, but by then, he’s grown enough to make a big sacrifice: giving the opportunity to 22 instead. That act of selflessness opens the way for Joe to return to Earth, too (though he didn’t know that when he made his sacrifice), and the movie leaves off with Joe taking his first unknown steps toward his second-chance future.
Pixar entertained several scenarios that would have ended the movie with Joe actually dying, according to co-director Kemp Powers. Speaking with Collider, Powers said they weren’t all necessarily happy ones, either.
“We did a lot of versions of Joe dying at the end and staying dead, in all kinds of different ways,” Kemp explained. “Some of them were way more emotional. Some of them were funny. We did a lot of different endings.”
Speaking with USA Today, co-director Pete Docter shed more light on how those endings could have fit into Soul’s redemption story, while still honoring the lessons Joe had learned along the way.
“We felt that he had learned enough to appreciate the things that he didn’t value to begin with. And that’s why we felt like, ‘Oh, that could work.’ It felt very noble that he’s sort of sacrificing his chance to go back and instead handing it off to 22,” Docter said.
“But as it turned out, so much of the film was about him learning for the first time that, ‘Hey, wait a minute. My barber has a whole life that I didn’t know anything about. I didn’t know that I could be honest and truthful with my mom.’ It felt like it was robbing him to not allow him to go back.”
While Soul leaves viewers with at least some idea that Joe’s future is headed toward a happy ending, 22’s future is more unclear. We know she gets a second chance at life on Earth, but Soul doesn’t offer up a final payoff that hints at the direction she might be headed. Docter said one of the movie’s alternate scenes would have even given the pair a chance to cross paths all over again — during their mortal lives.
“There was one [ending] where Joe was touring with Dorothea [voiced by Angela Bassett] and teaching students privately on the side,” he said, “and 22 was a new student and he recognized that it was her.”
Why settle on ambiguity over finality? Well, Disney has an unmatched knack for happy endings. And when finality in a movie like Soul means dying — even in an afterlife well-lived — it’s almost too easy an answer for the questions Joe’s journey has invited viewers to think about.
“We know that audiences often want to be told exactly what happened to the character. They want to know that the character made the 'right' decision,” Power told USA Today. “But in the case of Joe, we didn't want to put a choice on him. We wanted to say that regardless of what he ended up doing, whether it was going back to teaching, playing in a band or some hybrid of both, he just appreciated life better.”
Soul is streaming now at Disney+, and a basic subscription’s all you need. Unlike Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan, Soul is available to all subscribers at no premium upcharge.