Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room, shall we?
Back in 2009, The Princess and the Frog made national headlines for introducing the first African-American Disney Princess. The celebration didn’t last very long, because A) that film was crushed at the box office under the wake of Avatar, and B) the Disney Princess in question spent more or less the entire movie as a frog.
It would be ten years before we got another mainstream animated film with a black protagonist, with the arrival of Spies in Disguise. A movie in which the black main character in question spent more or less the entire movie as a pigeon. And hell, let’s throw in Coco — a film drenched in Mexican imagery and populated with Mexican characters, yet it still featured a lead character who was turned into a skeleton and interacted with other skeletons for most of the runtime.
So here we have Soul, the very first entry in the Pixar canon to feature a black protagonist. Yet the production was headlined by writer/director Pete Docter — a white man — and the trailers sold a story in which a black leading character spent most of the movie as a pale specter. Even before the film was released, there was a lot of controversy about this.
To be entirely fair, Kemp Powers — a black man — was credited as co-director and co-writer. More importantly, I should add that the filmmakers found a very clever solution toward presenting a transformation storyline in which the main black character is onscreen — with his body and skin color intact — through the vast majority of the runtime.
Kinda. Sorta. The solution they came up with isn’t exactly foolproof, and there’s already controversy over it. Let’s start from the top and take a closer look, shall we?
Jamie Foxx stars as Joe Gardner, a middle school band teacher with lifelong dreams of being a professional jazz musician. These dreams are somewhat complicated when Joe is officially hired as a full-time music teacher, complete with steady pay, health insurance, a pension plan, etc.
Let’s pause for a second here. Of course it’s nothing new for a protagonist to choose between taking the steady and dependable path or throwing caution to the wind and following their passion. However, this iteration has a few added wrinkles in that Joe is a teacher. With this career path, he could still play music for a living like he always wanted, and potentially inspire more young musicians in the bargain. Then again, Joe was first inspired to become a musician when his father took him to a jazz club.
So, could Joe do more good and inspire more young musicians from a jazz club, or from a classroom? Perhaps more importantly, is that even the right question? After all, everyone learns at different rates and in different ways, but does that really make any difference so long as everyone’s learning?
Anyway, one of Joe’s former students (Curley, voiced by Questlove) gets Joe a chance audition to play with the great jazz musician Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Joe lands the gig, only to stumble into an open sewer and die on his way home.
Making a long story short, the late Joe Gardner is able to weasel his way out of the afterlife and into the Great Before, where spirits develop personalities until they’re ready to take newborn physical bodies. Joe is tasked with mentoring an especially recalcitrant young spirit known only as 22 (Tina Fey), helping the unborn spirit find their “spark”. I won’t go into spoilery details about precisely what the “spark” is — it’s a topic of great narrative and thematic importance, and the characters discuss this at great length — but suffice to say that it’s something about the real world that the spirit has a passionate interest in, and every spirit needs to find their spark before they can go to Earth.
Anyway, Joe desperately wants to get back to his body on Earth, and 22 has spent the past several defiant centuries refusing to be born on Earth. Working together, they find a way to get Joe back to life. Making a very, very long story short, things go terribly wrong and 22 gets sent back in Joe’s body, while Joe himself is sent back in the body of a cat.
And we’re only half an hour into the movie.
So, on the one hand, we’ve got a film in which the black main protagonist is bodily present and on the screen through pretty much the entire movie. The bad news is, for roughly half the film, he’s being voiced by a white woman. Who is voicing a totally different character (a pre-born character, without any race or gender) inhabiting someone else’s body.
Yeah, the morality and ethics on this one get really convoluted, really quickly. I’m sure a lot of non-white folk will be offended over this, and far be it from me to tell them they shouldn’t be offended. But with all due respect, I’m loathe to talk about the race angle any more than I already have because there is SO MUCH MORE crammed into this movie.
A lot of the themes will definitely sound familiar. Life’s not about the destination, but the journey. Treasure every day like it’s your last. Be good to the people around you, because even the people you think you know may have histories and challenges you know nothing about. This is all threadbare stuff, but the execution is deep, profound, and heartfelt as only Pixar could deliver. In fact, I’d argue that the film deals so heavily with so many deeply profound philosophical questions about life and the universe, Pixar couldn’t have handled this and done it so well at any earlier point in their history.
This is a highly ambitious film, even by Pixar’s standards. Think about that.
As controversial as the basic premise is, so many of Joe’s most crucial lessons come from watching a total stranger walk a mile in his shoes. Nothing like it to give him a fresh new perspective on all the things he loved, wanted, took for granted, and never had. As for 22, she never really found her lust for life in the sterile and impersonal educational environment of the Great Before. She — as with so many other people — could only learn by getting out of the Great Before (“dropping out”, if you will) and getting her own experience out in the field.
I’m afraid I can only skim the surface here, because I couldn’t possibly hope to sufficiently detail all the thematic rumination, storytelling, and character development that the Pixar geniuses crammed into 100 minutes. If anything, it feels like this world and these characters could’ve sustained a good two hours at minimum. But I’ll tell you, between the marvelous camerawork, the gorgeous animation, the stunning production and lighting design, the delightful voice acting, and the utterly gobsmacking music, the filmmakers milk every last second for all it’s worth.
Seriously, whomever could’ve thought that freaking Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — of all people! — would’ve turned out to be two of the most versatile and sought-after composers working in the industry today? But as great as their work is here, Jon Batiste provides the beating heart of this movie, with stunning jazz compositions as fluid and expressive as any of the actors in this incredible cast.
Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey carry the film admirably. Phylicia Rashad, Questlove, Angela Bassett, Graham Norton, and Donnell Rawlings are all capable supporting players. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, and Wes Studi, all of whom play custodians of the Great Beyond, all inexplicably nicknamed “Jerry” — they’re a delight. Damn shame Daveed Diggs was so pitifully underutilized, though.
So, are there any nitpicks? Well… yeah.
Easily my biggest problem concerns the bridge between the living and the dead. For the third act, the filmmakers needed some way for Joe to cross between the living world and the Great Before without actually dying. It’s a tall order, sure, but the solution that the filmmakers came up with doesn’t make a lick of sense. It’s flimsy and nonsensical enough — even by the film’s own internal logic! — that even the slightest doubt or inspection is enough to collapse everything.
On a similar note, there’s the matter of “Terry”, voiced by Rachel House. Terry is a kind of spiritual accountant, keeping a detailed count of all the departed souls, obsessed with tracking down the one misplaced soul throwing off the count. The character is funny and charming enough — it certainly helps that after Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Thor: Ragnarok, Rachel House has developed a solid schtick as a puffed-up ignoramus too drunk on power and authority to realize how small and disliked they really are.
Unfortunately, precisely because nobody takes Terry or their power trips very seriously, Terry fails to register as a threat or a worthy antagonist of any kind. On a similar note, Terry only does one (1) thing in the entire movie that impacts the plot in any appreciable way. Terry’s entire runtime is in service of the turning point into the third act, nothing more and nothing else.
The whole runtime of Soul is loaded with such improbabilities and flimsy contrivances — even outright contradictions! — all for the purpose of getting the plot where it needs to be. This was very clearly a movie built more for the heart than the mind, but it works beautifully well on those terms.
The scope of the film is astounding, with a wide variety of themes explored in heartfelt, thoughtful, genuinely comical ways. The animation is stellar, the voice acting is delightful, the music is transcendent… there can be no doubt that this is objectively a well-made film. Even when the plot relies on pathetically thin contrivances to get everything where it needs to be, the painstaking delivery and profoundly heartfelt themes are almost — almost! — enough to hold the suspension of disbelief.
I don’t think the film is an unimpeachable instant classic like Inside Out, but the two are definitely in the same ballpark. Absolutely give it a look, but don’t look too close or you’ll see the stitches.