Soul: The Missteps in Representation

WARNING: This contains spoilers for Disney/Pixar’s Soul

Disney/Pixar’s Soul is an impeccable feat in animation. Whether it’s the abstract styles of Pixar’s willingness to experiment or Trent Razor and Atticus Ross’s ethereal score (along with Jon Batiste’s exquisite Jazz compositions), showcases just how far the studio has come since their breakthrough with Toy Story on the big screen in 1995.

But at the heart of it, Soul is beautifully existential in its exploration in the meaning of life. In comparison to Pixar’s other 2020 release Onward – a mythological slice of adventurism and escapism, Soul is profound and poignantly low-key, opting to look inward that is both personal and life-affirming. It’s no wonder many have compared it as a spiritual successor to Inside Out when Pixar (more specifically, director Pete Docter) can paint a vivid and lush picture of our personal headscapes. The appeal to young children is self-explanatory, but as adults, these stories take on a greater contextual feel. They hit harder, based on our experiences and circumstances. If there is a legacy (besides their resounding formula for making you ugly cry during their films), thematically, Pixar always seem to hit the ‘sweet spot’ when it comes to our humanity.

And Soul is helped by taking a step forward. In the character of Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), Pixar centres its story on a Black leading animated character – the first for the studio (and long overdue). And ensuring, the Black experience is represented, Soul is littered with identifiable warmth that will undoubtedly resonate with the community. The barbershop, the glimpses of family life and its relationships and even the representation of Jazz – a genre with an enriched history in Black culture (immediately wiping away La La Lands white saviour complex) feel like genuine efforts in changing the narrative. No doubt in my mind that the inclusion of writer Kemp Powers (as co-writer and co-director) helped underpin those moments to ensure they felt authentic.

Yet, as much as Soul is an artful demonstration of progress, it’s also a story that heavily relies on Hollywood tropes and problematic narratives that deflatingly takes away the brilliance on show.

The Princess and the Frog (Disney © 2009)

Hollywood is no stranger to stereotypical depictions of Black characters. But in animated form, it has become a well-traditioned cliché when they undergo a dramatic transformation, spending majority of the film being something other than themselves. In recent years, Disney’s The Princess and the Frog and Blue Sky’s Spies in Disguise have been at the centre of that debate. But when magical curses or scientific experiments are not the objects of their transformation, you only have to chart your mind back to something as insidious as the jive-talking crows from Dumbo. In animated form, they represented the notorious ‘Jim Crow’ laws that dehumanised and segregated millions of African Americans. Frankly, it makes you wonder what Black people (and POC in general if I include Brother Bear and The Emperor’s New Groove) have done to deserve such a trope.

But Disney/Pixar’s Soul (on the surface at least) is an attempt to showcase its evolvement in their storytelling arsenal. In Soul, Joe Gardner is on the cusp of realising his dream – a dream he believes unconditionally was born to do – to play Jazz. In essence, Joe’s character is the embodiment of the ‘hustle’, living the gig economy trying to make things work despite the odds being against him. He’s offered job security from his day job (which he’s reluctant to accept). His mother (voiced by Phylicia Rashad) naturally worries about how he will support himself. And to make his day more complicated, he’s offered the chance of a lifetime. But before we have time to bask in the dynamics, less than fifteen minutes into its runtime, it ushers in Joe’s transformation into an ethereal blue orb after failing down a sewer.

Soul (Disney/Pixar © 2020)

Considering this change happens early on, there is an element of curiosity in seeing how Docter’s life after death story played out. At that, Soul plays to its strengths, introducing ‘The Great Beyond’ and The Terrys which passionately plays into the brilliance of filmmaking. Films can be a source of entertainment, but when they go the distance, they can provide comfort to questions we’re afraid to ask or explore. And while Joe’s transformation is not ideal, but its quickly accepted knowing the fertile ground it wishes to cover.

But the argument is not helped when Joe’s role takes another unexpected transformation – a cat. Some will look the change as apt, considering cats are always a ‘side eye’ look away from being the punchline. But given how animations love a good and faithful animal sidekick that aids its protagonists on their quest, that is what Joe’s presence is reduced to – a sidekick. The comic relief. The support act. It’s reminiscent to other familiar Black stereotypes – The Help, Driving Miss Daisy or The Legend of Bagger Vance’s of this world. It doesn’t quite match all the qualities of the ‘magical negro’ trope, but it does entail Joe spending his time guiding 22 on how to navigate his life as its assigned mentor.

The situation becomes more awkward when Tina Fey’s 22 embodies Joe’s body, drawing inspiration from body-swap comedies. Alongside her comedic timing and improv, her role is a counterbalance that relies on the premise of ‘catch 22’ and Joe’s desperation to return back to his body. But it becomes an odd, twisty choice when you’re hearing Fey’s voice coming out of a Black body as if to say, ‘what if Jordan Peele turned Get Out into a Pixar animation?’ Trust me, no amount of reasoning can justify how problematic that is.

Embodying a Black body brought back memories of watching Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor at this year’s London Film Festival – a film right up my science fiction street in terms of its high concept. But the film starts with the possession of a Black woman’s body by Andrea Riseborough’s Tasya Vos, forcing her will to commit a brutal crime as part of her mission. The police arrive…and you can probably guess how that story ends.

Optics wise, these are moments where characters are given a free pass to ‘walk a mile in our shoes’. Their innocence or naivety becomes a get-out clause to relay a goal, be it an assassination plot (Possessor) or an unborn soul, free from gender, race or politics, learning the benefits of living (Soul). But it is at the expense when Blackness carries a generation of history, context, and weight. Rarely, in those occasions do they experience the magnitude or afforded that full and empathetic encapsulation. And in doing so (along with the transformation trope), it becomes the quiet erasure and devaluing of Black identity.

And in encompassing its big picture, Soul misses a golden opportunity to take care of the smaller details, to delve deeply into Joe’s inner circle and his support structures. Lisa is the ‘off-screen’ Black woman – throwback memories to The Incredibles (and its sequel) and Frozone’s sassy wife (another stereotype) who is never on screen. It could have emphasised his relationship with his parents more, particularly his dad, the source of Joe’s inspiration towards his love of Jazz. Dez (Donnell Rawlings), Paul (Daveed Diggs) and Dorothea (Angela Bassett) could have been significant anchors to Joe’s personality instead of footnotes in the story. Heck, we could have spent longer in Joe’s shoes, connecting more with his struggles with life. In Up, we got to spend a ‘lifetime’ with Carl Fredricksen (Edward Asner). Instead, Joe’s memories are a rushed montage of emotions.

Soul (Disney/Pixar © 2020)

But crucially, it gently implies a trope where Black people’s lives are mirrored through the eyes of others. In this instance, 22 (through her own innocence) shows Joe what he’s missing of being present in the moment. On a mental health spectrum, it’s an important takeaway. But on the flip side – despite its genuine intentions – the optics present a white voiced character showing a Black character how to live. It’s not quite Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) teaching Mahershala Ali’s Dr. Donald Shirley on how to eat fried chicken in Green Book, but you can probably tell which hill I’m prepared to stand on. And in turn, because of this notable shift in its storytelling, they stop being the protagonists in their own stories.

And it’s easy to paint a universal picture when it comes to stories based on acceptance. Docter’s previous film Inside Out is a perfect example of this, simplifying its concept into five basic emotions when humans are vast and complex. But the point expressed here is that Soul’s story morphs from being about Joe Gardner’s existence to 22’s and instead of being a Black story, it’s a story featuring Black characters – and that’s the defining difference. And as you can guess from my expectations, I wanted the former, not the latter.

Some will read this and think I’m blowing this out of proportion or thinking too deeply for a kids movie when it has already garnered positive reviews and on its way to being crowned animated film of the year (although Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers will have a say in that battle). In a year where we’ve needed that resounding comfort that speaks to our very ‘soul’, Soul hits those notes and will resonate with many people. But that is not the issue at hand here. It’s a noteworthy mention at the trade-off for such an accolade.

It’s a stark contrast to previous animated films under that animated tentpole. When you think about the impact of Pixar’s Coco or Disney’s Moana, both films are infused with the co-existence of story and cultural identity. While they’re not the perfect encapsulation of their respective cultures (still relying on the Disney formula as its architect) but in telling its story, it doesn’t sacrifice the experiences its main characters face. Their ‘transformations’ are tied to their belief systems in which they’re ultimately defined by it. You can’t escape the levels of emotion when you hear Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) sing ‘Remember Me’ to Mama Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía). You can’t escape the feminist power that resides in Moana, guided by her Polynesian ancestry as she walks across the parted Ocean floor, choosing heart over violence when returning the heart of Te Fiti to its rightful place. Soul doesn’t quite reach those same, emotive highs of its predecessors. The marrying of the two perspective storylines between Joe and 22 becomes the compromise narrative it ultimately reinforces – Black characters sacrificing their story for someone else’s benefit. Again, in a story about inspiration, Soul’s poetic aptness is not lost on its viewers. It tries to deliver the ‘best of both worlds’, one that encapsulates Pixar’s rich ability for storytelling and the cultural diversity it wants to tap into. But it never fully embraces or commits to its ideals, and when the optics are in play, then the thoughts become a counterproductive homage to those stereotypes.

Frustratingly enough, we know Black stories are capable of more and this year, in a topsy-turvy year for film releases, has shown off that range. In non-animated form, we were blessed with Steve McQueen’s Mangrove and Lovers Rock, Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods and the enclosed intimacy of Regina King’s One Night in Miami and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. But something like Matthew Cherry’s Oscar-winning short Hair Love or my personal favourite Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse show the possibilities of animation and the power of uncompromised storytelling. But most importantly, they are vehicles that challenge the fabric of our comforts where the reward is the embrace of its cultural empowerment.

Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse (Sony/Marvel © 2018)

Watching a film trip over itself over the basics is deflating. It’s also disappointing when a film is reliant on these tropes when we should all be collectively done with such images, especially when this year brought a ‘conscious awakening’ right to our doorsteps. It screams a lack of confidence, an appeasement that continues to push the patterned narrative that Black lives are not deserving to be fully encapsulated in animated form. That stories from our perspective require an added narrative to make it feel whole and complete. We can’t be beautifully complex as other characters in other mediums get to inhabit.

But it also represents the continued struggle behind the scenes in the spaces where these voices desperately need to be heard, going beyond the ‘surface level’ victories that occur in front of the camera. And when representation is far and few in between in mainstream animation from the major studios, like anything to do with progress, it’s one step forward, and a couple of steps back.

When all is said and done, it doesn’t make Disney/Pixar’s Soul a bad film. For me, it’s a bittersweet acknowledgement at its beauty, craft, ambition and grandiose scale but also its recognisable shortcomings. But it’s important these views are not dismissed. Think of Soul as a learning curve in missed opportunities and untapped potential in simply wishing for better – to bask more in the warmth of the culture instead of finding quirks and compromises which diminishes its impact when we’re deserving to be seen and heard. And in the search for greater representation and experiences within film, it continues to show we still got a long way to go.

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