Joe Gardner is the protagonist of Disney/Pixar's 2020 animated feature film, Soul.
A middle-school band teacher, Joe Gardner’s life hasn’t quite gone the way he’s expected. While teaching is a noble profession, his true passion is playing jazz, and he’s good. Joe believes he was born to play professionally, and though he’s 46 years old, he feels his opportunity to land a high-profile gig could come any day. Joe has an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz history, and even if his passion for music may have hampered his social life over the years, it hasn’t hampered his confidence. He lives alone, immersing himself in what he loves best: music. That is, until a single unexpected step sends him to the cosmic realms where he finds the “You Seminar” and is forced to think again about what his life is all about.
Joe Gardner is a middle school band teacher who has long dreamed of performing jazz music onstage, and finally gets a chance after impressing other jazz musicians during an opening act at the Half Note Club. As he was celebrating his new gig, he accidentally fell down a manhole. This put him in a coma, a state where he is neither alive nor dead, thus sending his soul to The Great Beyond, and later escaping to the The Great Before (both being places between the Land of the Living and the Land of the Dead). There, he meets a soul with a dim view of life named 22, who he finds himself mentoring. Now with 22's help, he must find his way back to his body and thus wake up from the coma, before time runs out and he fully dies.
Earlier versions of the film depicted Joe as being much more cynical to his students and openly voicing his opinion of how they view themselves. When going through rewrites, the team realized that it made Joe unlikable. Kemp Powers and John Baptiste gave input on how Joe should act around his students and what he should say with much of his dialogue taken almost verbatim from Baptiste. Joe was originally depicted as an actor who gets his big break on Broadway, but the filmmakers switched him to being a jazz musician due to it having more pathos.
As a human, he is African-American with a black mustache and has black thick-rimmed glasses on to see better. He wears a grey fedora, a black sweater, brown pants, and red shoes.
As a soul, his nose is not featured, but his glasses and fedora are now part of him.
When Joe was a young boy, his father took him to a jazz club where he found his passion for music. Since then, he has aspired to be a successful jazz musician but wasn't unable to get his big break. He became a teacher for the middle school band, and he was first shown encouraging Connie, who was playing the trombone after the class laughed at her. When he finally got his big break he fell down a manhole and got into a coma.
Not wanting his life to be over when his big break is about to come, he refuses to go to the great beyond and volunteers to be a mentor to 22, when he fails to be a good mentor he is about to be sent to the great beyond when he and 22 ran.
Joe and 22 end up returning to earth however 22 ends up in Joe's body, while Joe ends up in a cat's body. At some point, while 22 is eating pizza, they meet Dorothea Williams and Joe forces 22 into a taxi. When they went back to Joe's house, Curley calls them, hoping that Joe was alright. Joe instructs 22 to put on a suit, and right in the middle of that, Joe's student, Connie, rings the doorbell. She said that she wanted to quit, but she still wanted to play another song. Then, 22 discovers that life on earth was not that bad. After Connie left, Joe made 22 shave, though it went wrong. Then, they go to Dez in hopes that he could fix it. 22 gets a lollipop and talks to Dez about his life. During their stay, 22 discovers the joy of life, they are eventually caught by Terry.
At this time, 22 had earned her Earth Badge and was allowed to go to Earth to be born as a human. However Joe tells her that his experiences and tastes earned the badge. Angry, 22 tosses the badge at Joe and disappears into the zone. Joe learns from a Jerry that instead of a life's purpose, a spark simply means that a soul is ready to live. He heads back to Earth and has a successful first performance with the Dorothea quartet, but does not feel right about what happened.
After the performance, he explains to Dorothea Williams that he thought it would be different than what happened, to which Dorothea responds with a story that there was 2 fishes, and the younger fish said that it was in water and it wanted to be in the ocean, to which the older fish responds that it is already in the ocean.
At home, Joe remembers the things 22 had done and plays the piano with the items she collected while in Joe's body on the piano. He plays the piano and enters the zone, where he encounters Moonwind again and tells him that he needs to find 22 to apologize, only to discover that she has become a lost soul. Since 22 was in Joe's body on Earth for a short time, she has become one after she became obsessed with her own self-loathing. Joe tries to intervene by trying to give her Earth Pass back, but this only makes her obsession even worse.
Joe was eaten by 22's lost soul form, and finds himself inside trying to reach out to her, only to be stopped by recreations of her former mentors, including himself. Joe eventually finds a maple leaf 22 was amazed by when she was in his body, and puts it into her open hand, finally making her happy and breaking free from her obsession. When 22 jumps into the Earth portal, Joe holds her hand when falling to Earth, knowing that he will be sucked back up into the Great Before.
At the end, when Joe is finally about to enter The Great Beyond, the first Jerry he encounters tells him to stop in order to have a moment with him. Jerry tells him that since he inspired all the Jerrys in the You Seminar, they are rewarding him with another chance on Earth. Joe enters the portal, knowing that he is going to live every minute of his life to the fullest.