Pixar’s Soulful Lessons on the Meaning of Life

Sophie Hart
Movies Disney
Movies Disney Animation

With everything we’ve been through in 2020, and with this turbulent and isolating year coming to a close, there’s never been a better time to look inward and think about what we’re all doing on this great big Earth in the first place. It’s fitting, then, that Pixar’s new offering, Soul, will be pondering just that. While New York Jazz musician Joe Gardner is suspended between life and death in ‘The Great Before,’ we’re taking a look back at what Pixar has taught us about the meaning of life — and why it’s worth living — across their beloved films so far. We’re not crying, you’re crying…

Lesson 1: Follow Your Soul’s Passion

If you ask many people what their purpose in life is, they might respond that they are destined to follow a lifelong dream or passion. This is certainly true of a number of Pixar protagonists, whose ambition and perseverance transforms them into the heroes they are destined to be — if through unusual circumstances.

Pixar’s Ratatouille shows that a genuine ‘calling,’ combined with talent and determination, can enable someone to achieve a life purpose far beyond what is ever expected of them. Remy is an outsider in his huge rodent family, a unique soul marked out for his discerning palate and extraordinary aptitude for recipe creation. Even during his humble beginnings in rural France, he’s able to spin his own concoctions out of scavenged natural produce, while his family settles for literal trash.

Remy and Linguini in Ratatouille.
Remy and Linguini in Ratatouille.

Inspired by the posthumous spirit of the legendary Chef Gusteau, Remy decides he’s going to be a chef — but he has to cook up a reality to this dream all on his own. By striking a deal with Linguini, Gusteau’s hapless kitchen boy, he gets his foot in the door. Allowing his skills to shine as he experiments with recipes, Remy proves his talent. Even when he can’t overcome the final hurdle to becoming a celebrated chef — the fact that he’s, well, a rat — he’s still able to realise his fantasy of owning an exclusive Parisian restaurant, by winning the favour of infamous food critic, Anton Ego. He overcomes his family’s disapproval, the risk of being found out, and — even worse — exterminated, to claim his soul’s purpose.

“Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” — Anton Ego

As Ego says, not everyone is blessed with such raw talent as Remy. Monsters University shows that following a dream doesn’t always go to plan — sometimes life has a different idea. Mike Wazowski learns this the hard way. Through Monsters, Inc., we were introduced to Wazowski as Sulley’s right-hand man, as he supported his buddy in being one of the company’s best scarers. But in Pixar’s prequel, we learn that Mike’s original dream was to be a scarer himself. In fact, he wanted it even more than his best friend.

After visiting the scare floor of Monsters, Inc. on a school trip, Mike makes it his life’s ambition to build a career there. He has the determination, the book smarts, the willingness to dedicate his time to practising — all of that is enough to get him into Monsters University. However, the missing ingredient — natural talent — holds him back from the career he longs for. A message not often shown in family films, Pixar deals with the stark reality that determination can only take you so far if you don’t have a natural gift. However, more importantly, they show that there isn’t just one road to fulfilling your potential.

Monsters University Mike Wazowski
Mike Wazowski's bags are packed in Monsters University.

Mike has something he never even realised was his biggest strength — fearlessness. Against the odds, he assembles a team that nearly wins the Scare Games, and risks expulsion to impress Dean Hardscrabble with his scaring skills. Even after he loses his shot, he’s not afraid to climb the ranks in a non-traditional way, and takes Sulley with him on the ride. Starting as cleaners at Monsters Inc., they play the long game, until they are eventually made one the company’s best scaring teams. Mike still gets to live out his dream of working on that scaring floor, but as a coach — a role much more suited to his talents.

Summary: If you have a strong passion or ‘calling’ in life, follow it. It’s likely to unlock your soul’s true fulfillment and a sense of purpose, whether you land where you thought you would or not. It’s better to follow that dream than waste your life wondering what might have been.

Lesson 2: Every Soul Needs A Mate

Achieving your individual goals is a valid life ambition, but a soul can’t be fully satisfied unless it gives back to others — we’re all in this together, after all. Some of Pixar’s most loved characters find fulfillment, and a place in our hearts, by their unbridled need to help and support their fellow man — or toy.

Pixar’s very first film showcases the power of giving back to others with perhaps their most iconic character — Woody. In Toy Story, Woody’s self-proclaimed purpose in life is to be there for his owner, Andy. In his opinion, life is simply not worth living unless you’re loved by a child, and to earn that love, you have to be available for them 24/7. It’s a noble purpose, and one that Woody holds on to through the years, despite many obstacles trying to take him away from Andy — whether nearly being ripped apart by the evil neighbour Sid, almost sold to a museum in Japan, or imprisoned by a bear that smells of strawberries.

Toy Story
Woody comes to achieve meaning without Andy.

However, along the way, Woody learns that it’s just as important to look after his friends as it is his owner — perhaps even more so. As a human, Andy sees Woody as a child’s plaything, and doesn’t give back the same affection that Woody bestows — but Buzz, Jessie, and the gang do. Once Woody earns the trust of his fellow toys and helps them out, he’s rewarded with their help and emotional support in return. Woody finally gets to a place where life is still worth living, whether he keeps hold of Andy or not.

“Woody once risked his life to save me. I couldn’t call myself his friend if I weren’t willing to do the same.” — Buzz Lightyear

In WALL-E, one of Pixar’s most existential films to date, one character’s love for another quite literally saves the world. Stranded in a lonely existence on the abandoned planet Earth, WALL-E diligently goes about his task of cleaning up the mess humans have left. But there’s one thing sorely missing in his solitary existence — a companion to care for. He’s very romantic for a droid. When the mysterious new robot EVE descends from the skies, it’s love at first sight, and WALL-E will do anything to earn her affection — convinced she’s his soul mate.


WALL-E’s ambition to live happily ever after with EVE is not just endearing — it ends up being vital to the survival of humanity. In giving a plant he found to EVE, he proves that there is life on Earth, and she can fulfil her directive to begin the repopulation of the planet. His following EVE on to the Axiom, the spaceship where humans now live, provides the back-up she needs to fulfil her purpose. In realising how important the plant is to EVE, WALL-E makes sure to protect it at all costs, preventing it from being destroyed by the onboard computer which would have doomed humans to hundreds more years in space.

Once EVE realises the lengths WALL-E has gone to in order to protect and care for her, she reciprocates his love. After he gets severely damaged in action, she puts the ship into hyperjump to return to Earth, both for the sake of humanity and to find the missing parts to save her new knight in shining armour. Driven by their love for each other, they not only find happiness, but save the human race, and inspire humanity to rebuild the planet with their story of connection.

Summary: Making the effort to love and help others will not only add purpose to your own life and feed your soul, but will create huge ripple effects for society overall. Leading by altruism will make the planet a better place to live on, and kindness will come back your way.

Lesson 3: A Hundred Souls Are Better Than One

If we’ve learned one thing this year, it’s that a collective effort can make a huge difference in the world. Solo ambition can get you so far, but you’ve got to rally the troops if you’re going to incite real change. Pixar shows this in action at some point in most of their films, and it always starts with one character taking the lead.

The studio’s second feature, A Bug’s Life, starts out as a story about one character’s ambition to impress his community and become a hero. Flik, a well-intentioned if eccentric inventor, wants to prove himself useful to his ant colony, by streamlining their efforts to harvest food for themselves and the grasshoppers with his contraptions. However, he finds a much bigger purpose waiting for him.

Flik in A Bug's Life.
Flik in A Bug's Life.

After accidentally destroying the colony’s food stockpile, and being the only one to stand up to the bullying grasshoppers who demand their share, Flik throws the colony into panic. He’s cast away on a ‘mission’ to recruit warrior bugs to help them take on the ants’ suppressors, with no-one expecting results. However, it turns out, Flik has a skill more effective than his inventing abilities — getting people to rally around his cause.

While the circus bugs he finds aren’t aware that they’re participating in a plot to defeat the grasshoppers, Flik skillfully incentivises them with the promise of a performance, winning their friendship and loyalty in the process. Even when the original plan to scare off the grasshoppers with a fake bird goes awry, Flik has proven that a collective effort can lead the colony to victory. With the rest of the ants on his side, Flik inspires them to be brave and all stand up together — the grasshoppers are outnumbered one hundred to one, and driven out once and for all.

“You let one ant stand up to us, then they all might stand up!” — Hopper

Nearly 20 years later, another young protagonist makes a huge difference with the power of uniting others, in Pixar’s Coco. Like Remy before him, Miguel’s family aren’t on board with his passion — in this case, to become a famous musician. The Rivera family has banished music from their home, after Miguel’s great-great-grandfather was thought to have abandoned his wife and child to pursue a career in the industry. The offending ancestor has been removed from the ofrenda and therefore his spirit is consigned to the Land of the Dead, so will eventually disappear. Fortunately, Miguel’s desire to pursue his dream, at the expense of his family’s wishes, catapults him into a journey that will heal his entire bloodline.

Miguel in Coco.
Miguel in Coco.

After accidentally arriving in the Land of the Dead, Miguel’s priority — at first — is to meet his hero, whom he thinks is his great-great-grandfather, the famous musician, Ernesto de la Cruz. He wants his blessing to return to the Land of the Living and become a musician himself, despite his family’s objections. However, he soon uncovers the truth about what really happened generations ago — that his real great-great-grandfather didn’t mean to abandon his family at all, and the shadow hanging over the Riveras need not be there.

Miguel takes it upon himself to keep Héctor’s memory alive and return him to the family, by uniting him with his wife and explaining the situation. Most powerfully of all, it’s Miguel’s rendition of ‘Remember Me,’ the song that Héctor wrote for his little girl Coco, that reminds the now elderly daughter of her father’s love. The whole family is united through Miguel’s efforts, and music enters the house after generations of silence.

Summary: If we all make the effort to join together, we can leave the world a better place than we found it, in big and small ways. Luckily, there are some souls in life who find it within themselves to lead the way.

Lesson 4: Adventure Is Out There

Whether it’s achieving a career goal, helping others, fighting climate change, or just getting through the day, one way of looking at life is as one big ‘choose your own adventure.’ Adventure is at the heart of Pixar’s stories, with characters overcoming fear and putting skills to the test to unlock parts of their souls they never dreamed they had.

Finding Nemo
Facing fear in Finding Nemo.

Finding Nemo presents us with a father and son, both sorely in need of an adventure. Nemo’s dad Marlin has lost nearly everything, after his wife and kids — all apart from Nemo — are brutally killed by a barracuda. Naturally, he becomes obsessed with his only remaining son’s safety, and makes it his life’s purpose to protect him from any possible harm. So when Nemo goes missing, he loses his whole sense of self, and desperately needs him back.

Against his risk-averse nature, Marlin’s paternal instinct overrides his fear, and he finds himself facing adversaries he never would have dreamed of while hiding in his anemone. With his new companion Dory steadfastly by his side, the pair take on sharks, whales, jellyfish, and more in their epic trip across the ocean. In the process, Marlin has an epiphany: If Nemo is protected from everything, his life won’t be worth living. He finds that his son has been able not only to survive, but thrive in his absence, and the pair end up closer and more fulfilled after recounting their solo adventures to each other, freeing them of fear.

Finding Nemo
Dory, Marlin, and Bruce in Finding Nemo.

Onward again shows that hiding from risks won’t allow you to live life to the fullest. It also teaches another important lesson — you’ll find fulfillment when you appreciate what you already have. Ian and Barley’s quest to bring their father back to life for a day ends up turning into a journey of self-discovery for the younger brother.

The timid Ian, having never met his father, is convinced that his one chance to talk with him will give him the confidence he needs to take on life. However, it becomes apparent that he’s had the ability to achieve great things all along. With his older brother’s encouragement, Ian goes on an epic quest, crossing chasms, taking part in a high-speed car chase, and bringing magic back to the world. He already had a father figure to guide him every step of the way — Barley.

Barley is a father-figure to Ian in Onward.

It would be remiss to talk about the adventure of life without mentioning Pixar’s heart-warming, high-flying escapade — Up. The studio’s 10th feature film beautifully examines the interpretation of adventure itself, and what constitutes a life well-lived. Carl and Ellie always dreamed of being real explorers, planning to travel to Paradise Falls on a glorious expedition someday. However, life gets in the way, and their ambitious dream — as well as that of starting a family — doesn’t come to pass. Carl is left desolate, feeling that the pair never got to fulfil their biggest wish in life.

Carl in Up
Adventure unlocks human connection for Carl in Up.

However, after unexpectedly travelling to the very place they aspired to visit alone, Carl’s perilous adventure helps him see his whole life from a different perspective. While he does have the experience of a lifetime, flying thousands of miles, meeting exotic birds and talking dogs, and defeating a supervillain, Carl’s greatest reward is meeting Russell, the young wilderness explorer who tags along for the ride. Carl remembers the warm feeling of human connection, and the sense of purpose in looking after someone else. When he discovers the last page of Ellie’s Adventure Book, the message is clear — sharing the highs and lows of life with another human being is its own adventure.

Summary: Whatever you choose to do with your life, embrace it in all its colours. Do your best to step out of your comfort zone, but appreciate what you already have. No-one truly knows the meaning of life, but enjoy it while it lasts — and all the adventure, love, and soul companionship that comes with it.

Soul arrives on Disney+ on December 25.

Sophie Hart
Social and Programming Producer @ FANDOM. Usually found watching Disney films, playing with LEGO or baking. Sometimes simultaneously.