Disney Pixar’s “Soul” Gives Us the Studio’s First Black Lead In Time For Christmas 2020: 75 Out Of 100

Soul is the new animated feature from Disney Pixar Studios featuring an all-star voice cast.

Led by the multi-talented, multi-award-winning Jamie Foxx the story seeks to examine whether the spark that uniquely inspires and makes you you is the same as your life’s purpose.  Joe Gardner (Foxx) is the middle-aged, frustrated musician/substitute middle school band teacher in a New York suburb currently trying to impart his deep love of jazz to his students, the way he was inspired by his late father. His constantly worried mother, Libba Gardner (Phylicia Rashad), in business with two aunts, would rather he settle down into regular, paid work.

On the day the school finally offers him a permanent job, Curley (Questlove), Gardner’s former student, offers him the opportunity of a lifetime – an on-the-spot audition to play piano for his idol, legendary jazz saxophonist, Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), and join her Quartet. Joe accepts and experiences a total immersion within his talent and jazz-fed passion, momentarily transported to The Zone – a plane of existence separate to the Material World, but not quite the Heavenly Realms. He lands the gig. But, Joe’s luck hasn’t quite changed. And after one fateful misstep, his Soul “awakens” in one of the actual Heavenly Realms – The Great Beyond.

Joe then embarks on a desperate bid to regain access to his Earthly Body lying unconscious in a hospital bed. Serendipitously, he meets Troubled Soul, 22 (Tina Fey), who has actively avoided earth for hundreds of years. Together, they set off on a roller coaster adventure. Along the way, we meet the dogged Great Beyond account of Souls Terry (Rachel House); new Souls being shaped in The Great Before; gentle counsellors, the Jerrys (Alice Braga and British-Norwegian-Nigerian comedian and actor Richard Ayoade); Lost Souls in The Zone-adjacent Astral Plane, and the MWB Mystics Without Borders who rescue them, led by sign twirler Moonwind (Graham Norton). 

Soul is the first original major Disney Pixar animated feature to star an African American lead, distinguishing it as a very different animal to Disney’s The Princess and the Frog (2009). Academy Award-winning director Pete Docter (Monsters Inc., 2001, Up 2009, Inside Out 2015) is joined by African American screenwriter Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami, 2020, Star Trek: Discovery S1/5 eps, 2017) in his co-directing debut. The pair also collaborated on the story and screenplay with Mike Jones (senior creative team on Incredibles 2, 2018, and Coco, 2017; crew/ adaptation to English versions of anime films The Tale of Princess Kaguya, 2013, and The Wind Rises, 2013) and had access to an array of cultural and music consultants, including Herbie Hancock, Ahmir-Khalib ‘Questlove‘ Thompson, Jon Batiste, and Daveed Diggs. GRAMMY-nominated jazz singer-songwriter, composer and bandleader Jon Batiste produced all of the original jazz music, and it is his hands as Joe’s which we see play beautifully across the piano keys in the film. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross from Nine Inch Nails produced the haunting, ethereal music of the Heavenly Realms.

This, in itself, shows an unequivocal commitment to cultural sensitivity and accurate depictions, which I’m sure, is why such heavy-hitting names as Rashad and Bassett were tempted on board. As supporting characters, Libba and Dorothea are like hand-made specialty hot chocolate – Rashad’s Libba, more delicately home-spiced; Bassett’s Dorothea, more darkly smooth with cacao. Within their short scenes, their characters were carefully crafted so as to be refreshingly and satisfyingly free of irritating pre-conceptions, particularly as they are black women over a certain age. The power of two mistresses of stage and screen palpably translated to a feature animation, and you may be left wanting to see more of them, as I was.

Dana Murray produces for the studio, who go all out in world-building duties, realising the Material World extremes of the cookie-cutter Queens suburb to the hustle and vibrancy of modern-day New York City, flavoured with the bitter-sweetness of traditional and improvised jazz. There is texture and colour variation, rendering everything from very tactile and alive to weathered and imperfect. The Heavenly Realms, by complete contrast, are something we haven’t seen – quasi-experimental and two-dimensional with a lot of near eye-straining blues, and somewhat softer pinks. They certainly distinguish the Jerrys and Terry as part of the innate substance of the Realms and imbue them with an all-powerful, inevitability, very distinct from the soft white spheres of innocent New Souls and the (slightly grey?) used up, shaped Souls heading for Beyond.

But, this is where the film unexpectedly didn’t work for me. These Heavenly Realms feel a little off-kilter, giving no real impression of being places of desire, reward, peace, or punishment: no gardens, forests, pools, waterfalls, or infernos. Instead, city simulacra and Halls of You. They are not Final Destinations, but these Realms are as bland as the unimaginative Realm names (Beyond, well OK, if you must; Before – really?) and the tasteless food that new Souls are trained on. Why would 22 want to stay there for hundreds of years? Why train if it’s all forgotten? The Heavenly Realms really just felt like a giant plot device.

Joe is an African American man, finally claiming his break later than is usual in life. This apparently reflects Powers’ own experience of breaking into his second career of screenwriting from journalism, keeping true to a dream that others felt he should have laid to rest years before. So, Soul should work for me on multiple levels. As the first original African American animated character and feature lead, his story should be inspiring. The intent is palpable, and the creative team behind it are clearly excited about him, feeling that the story has a “universal narrative that will appeal to all ages and… a universe that is as smart and life-affirming as it is funny and exciting. The perfect film for your heart, body, and, well… soul.” But, come the end credits it may leave you feeling like they got so much wrong.

Soul is rated PG, and cannot appeal to “all ages“. Parental Guidance recommends that some material may not be suitable for pre-teens (under-13s). Much of the universal humour is of the slapstick variety and concentrated around the body swap/fish-out-of-water sections, which although were genuinely charming, the basis for the switch up, or twist, felt pretty weak. But, once you realise the kind of soul the film is about, you know that death will crop up eventually, which happens to coincide with the emotional crisis point in Act III and the biggest problem I certainly found with Soul:

Familiar. Negative. Tropes. They were disguised by all the gloss and polish Hollywood could layer on top, but they were right there in the lead character, in the diverse classroom, in the Heavenly Realms – the promise of an historic animated African American story by a major studio, again hijacked into a familiar SDMN* story for a white hero – in this case, a hundreds-of-years-old white soul, voiced by feted middle-aged white actress-comedian-writer-producer-playwright Tina Fey, and all the authority figures/character with any Heavenly Power populated by white actors (and Richard Ayoade).

In the opening scene, Joe’s classroom is full of a diverse selection of children hailing from multi-ethnic, multi-faith backgrounds. It looks fantastic! They unenthusiastically grind out a painful jazz number, eventually broken by an inspired trombone solo. I actually held my breath a little, waiting to see if this film would be different from the outset – if the nuanced jazz soloist would finally be an African American child. It was a child of almost ambiguous, but probably Eastern Asian descent. Because, for some reason, in mainstream American film, it is almost never the black character who is shown to have the talent, encyclopaedic knowledge, and appreciation of jazz (in particular). Joe and his father aside for the purposes of this movie (but remember, neither have been recognisably successful in their pursuit of it!), if it’s not a black director like Spike Lee (Mo’ Better Blues, 1990) or Vondie Curtis Hall (Gridlock’d, 1997), or a biopic like Bird (1988), Round Midnight (1986) or Miles Ahead (2015) the result is the eye-gouging La La Land (2016). Despite the roots of the music, jazz has always been savagely, maliciously, covetously, appropriated by White America. Joe, of course, nurtures his student’s natural-born talent!

Later, a seemingly extraneous line of dialogue, which still rings jarringly offensive in my ears, is uttered by Terry whilst alphabetically searching filing cabinets of the dead, once Joe goes missing, aimed carelessly at another ethnic group: “Wow! There sure are a lot of Garcias in here!” I still can’t fathom either its purpose or meaning, but my deep disapproval persists. I am still personally reeling as to how it made the final cut with Trump and all that he is and has said still on the American throne!

Joe, a grown African American male, like his father before him, it seems, has never had a steady job, and still relies on the woman in his life, Libba his mother, to make ends meet. Given the film subject, it’s likely he will meet his end in early middle age. Once you have identified that 22 has the voice of a middle-aged white woman, Joe’s actions beyond a certain point take a predictable turn. We are led to believe that we understand the depth of Joe’s conviction about jazz and the meaning of finally playing the gig with an idol – it’s what the setup and the power to literally cross worlds has all been about! Yet, Joe turns out to fulfill all of the criteria of Spike Lee’s SDMN* (2004) – the myopic, steadfast Hollywood trope of the noble/wise/quasi-mystical/maybe-magical savage/negro, whose sole destiny is to make a/the sacrifice for the white lead, whether there is a logical reason or not or whether they have just met or known the family before the lead was born, most played by Whoopi Goldberg and Morgan Freeman. The nature and magnitude of the sacrifice and whether Joe is ultimately “rewarded” makes this creative choice no less dissatisfying and is definitely not of universal appeal. 

So, by the end-credits, you may be asking whether this was a “black story” or not and whether the tentative word associations even justified the title, particularly as the only omitted reference was to that of soul food! But Soul ultimately suffers from the same malaise that affected The Princess and the Frog (2009): a claim of social and civil advancement is weakened if the same old stories and stereotypes are still so easily identified. All the cultural consultants in the world won’t help if, unconsciously, everyone is viewing the project through the same SDMN lens! Still, Pete Docter has promised greater diversity and inclusion from Disney Pixar in future projects, so the good news is that the future is bright, and I’m sure we can expect great things from this team if they have the courage to take a good long look at this one.

Soul is a good starting point. On the whole, as a complete animated feature, it is quite beautiful to watch, even if the creative anatomical choices are not quite to your liking. If jazz is not for you either (poor you), you will still be swept away with how it cleverly blends with the story and action. Joe’s audition solo, strangely lacked any actual jazz for me, but it got the job done, so I won’t complain too much. And, aside from the super-unfortunate “Garcias” line, and the negative SDMN* tropes, the writing team handle the intense emotional moments most beautifully, particularly the Act III crisis. Foxx, Rashad and Bassett do what they do best with those moments and we do what we do best and respond in kind.

So, go see Soul. See what you think and leave your comments below.

*SDMN Super Duper Magical Negro as identified and coined by Spike Lee in 2004, also known as the Noble Savage. Alternatively, there is also the Super Duper Sexual Spiritual Black Woman coined by Chesya Burke in 2012 (also mostly played by Whoopi Goldberg).

Soul will be available to watch on Disney+ from December 25th 2020.


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