PIXAR’s “Soul” Is Getting Rave Reviews, And Is Disney’s Most Mature Movie Yet

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Last year’s Coronavirus outbreak forced cinemas around the world to close, resulting in new productions to be released on digital streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. Released on Disney+ in late December 2020, “Soul” introduces PIXAR’s first ever black lead, “Joe Gardner” (Jaime Fox), a down-on-his-luck middle school music teacher and aspiring jazz pianist who gets a big break at a jazz club before finding himself in the afterlife.

The prologue peaks with Joe scoring a full-time job at his school and nailing an audition with jazz legend Dorothea Williams before falling into an open sewer drain, and ending up in a trauma hospital. After his near- lethal pitfall, Joe’s soul is sent to Great Beyond, a foyer where a moving walkway forces souls to line up before heading toward a bright white light. Joe isn’t ready for The End, and in an attempt to flee in the other direction, he falls off the walkway, and ends up in a brightly colored zone known as the Great Before.

The Great Before’s purpose is to mentor fresh souls so that they can discover a “spark” that will drive them to a happy and productive life down on earth. It has its own rules and procedures, and is part of a larger cause and effect spiritual ecosystem where all things happen for a reason. Joe is motivated mainly by a desire to avoid the white light and get back to earth (so that he can attend that amazing gig that he’s been waiting his whole life for), so he assumes the identity of an acclaimed Swedish phycologist and mentors a “problem soul” known only by her number, 22. Twenty- two has struggled to find her “spark” for decades, and has rejected mentorship from some of the greatest figures in history like Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, and Muhammad Ali. 

In his mentorship with 22 , Joe closely examines his years on earth as a middle-school music teacher, and finds that his life wasn’t all that he thought it was. He didn’t make as many friends as he probably should have and was consumed by fears that he traded his childhood dream of becoming a famous jazz artist for a more ordinary life. With that said, 22 does eventually find her spark, though it takes a lot of effort and more than a few wild and comedic misadventures to get there. 

Despite PIXAR’s creative animation and beautiful music, my experience watching “Soul” was a back and forth rollercoaster of cringe, concern and astonishment because of the film’s creative choices. Overall, the film sends a positive message of  “don’t get so caught up in ambition that you stop and forget to smell the flowers” and teaches that “life’s purpose is more than only pursuing a dream, it’s about slowing down and enjoying simple-day to day treasures”. 

Though its message may seem simple, “Soul” isn’t a film for small children. Joe is killed the moment he gets his big break, which sends a negative message to children who might see themselves in Joe, and may discourage them from working to achieve their dreams. Furthermore, the film’s entire premise is consumed by the afterlife, which might be confusing or even scary to those who don’t quite understand the concept of death, and may lead to premature conversations with toddlers about similar topics. 

The film also tends to a dangerous trope that has become popular in animation with leads of color. After Joe “dies” we see him turn into a blue and green blob and a cat for the majority of the film’s running time- a pattern we’ve seen turning Black characters into creatures (like in Disney’s “Princess and the Frog”). 

In fact there are multiple instances of questionable injustices, one of which occurs about 40 minutes into the film, when 22 is accidentally sent back to earth with Joe, and in a miscommunication, she (a white woman) ends up in Joe’s black body… and not just any white woman. Tina Fey, who voices 22, had been publicly accused of featuring black and brown face on her show “30 Rock” earlier in 2020. For me, seeing Fey “trapped” in a Black body felt insensitive, especially after the incidents last year. 

Other instances include another character mistaking another Black man for Joe, a common micro-aggression, and the idea of Joe’s life taking a backseat for a white woman to figure out what she wants from life. 

That’s not to say that everything about “Soul” isn’t great. Despite its transformation and questionability issues, “Soul” will prove to be of historical interest because it is the most unapologetically black PIXAR project ever released. Its portrayal of jazz is accurate in soundtrack and performance aspects, and scenes throughout the movie correctly and respectfully portray Black culture. 

In a flashback, Joe’s father describes Jazz music as one of the greatest African-American contributions to world culture. Other touches in the film include a visit to a Black barbershop which showcases an array of male hairstyles, and a joke about the difficulty of a Black man getting a taxi in New York City. 

Overall, “Soul” has a positive message about not taking your life for granted. I just wish that it channeled more of its energy into capturing Joe’s story and his life rather than his relationship with 22.