In Pixar’s Soul, a music teacher with a burning passion for jazz suddenly dies. The event puts him on a path in the afterlife that makes him realize how he never lived with much passion during his time on Earth, and how hard he’s willing to fight for another chance.
What the teacher, Joe (Jamie Foxx) finds as he encounters both the Great Beyond and the “Great Before,” Soul’s idea of an ethereal plane where all souls are processed before being placed into babies, is a powerful reminder of just what all he lost by untethering from his mortal coil. But all of his discoveries come by way of an unexpected companion who drives Soul’s story forward and draws attention to how, despite clearly intending for this to be its first big-budget “Black movie,” Pixar still crafted Soul’s narrative with white audiences in mind first and foremost.
Just when Soul first begins to set up how its story is actually about two people learning how to reach across their distances to start a friendship and become more whole people, it’s apparent that co-director and co-writer Kemp Powers was brought on rather late into the movie’s production (Pete Docter was originally a solo director on the project). Soul’s earliest scenes on Earth give you the slightest taste of Joe’s musical sensibilities and his obsession with jazz, elements of his character that were fleshed out after Powers joined, in part because everyone felt that particular story should be shaped by a Black writer.
But before you really get a chance to attach Joe to these things that are meant to define him, the movie diligently chugs along and finds him unexpectedly falling into an open manhole, an accident that leads to his untimely death and Soul’s first turn. When Joe first comes to on a massive cosmic escalator leading to whatever exists for humans after life, he understandably panics and pushes his way out of line, falling off the side and tumbling down into the Great Before. There, scribbly beings known as Jerry (voiced by Alice Braga and Richard Ayoade) oversee the development of freshly-minted souls, and you can get a sense of what Soul’s earlier scripts were like when Joe’s passion could have been animation instead of music.
Not being a new soul himself, Joe would normally stick out in the Great Before despite spending most of the film being depicted as the same sort of blue swirl of toothpaste that all the movie’s incorporeal souls are. However, in addition to the many Jerry creatures, the area is also populated by mentors, souls of dead people from Earth tasked with bestowing knowledge upon new souls as part of a larger process that helps define their personalities. In his bid to get back to Earth, Joe is swept up by accident as a mentor and gets to experience what’s involved. He’s eventually paired up with an ornery soul named 22 (Tina Fey) who’s meant to literally be the 22nd soul to have ever been created who, coincidentally, has never passed through this early stage of their development despite having had thousands of teachers helping them.
Soul’s plot revolves around Joe and 22 being forcefully paired up at first but later deciding to work together when they realize there’s a chance of them both helping the other get what they want. Turns out, 22's not interested in being alive and is just fine going through the motions with her new mentor until he fails and she’s left alone again for a little while. But they figure that if Joe can find the final piece of her life puzzle, “she” (more on that in a bit) can give Joe her spiritual pass that’ll transport him back to Earth and leave him with a second chance at becoming an accomplished jazz musician and Jerry(s) will leave her be.
Once Soul properly kicks into gear, you see how the intention was always to apparently have the movie split between the Great Before and Earth. To be sure, the scenes depicting the hustling, bustling lives of living New Yorkers are some of Pixar’s most sumptuous and stunning to see. But once Joe and 22 are on Earth with a nosy accountant-type (Terry, played by the always fabulous Rachel House) from the Great Before hunting them down to drag them back, Soul introduces a disappointing, but familiar plot twist that ends up changing the tone of the movie in ways Pixar likely didn’t want audiences to spend too much time thinking about.
Joe’s physical form remains in a comatose state so long as he refuses to pass on, so he and 22 reason that he can jump back to Earth. But after a scuffle at the edge of a portal to our planet, both fall toward Joe’s body in the hospital. As the duo comes to, they’re dismayed to realize 22 has woken up in Joe’s body, and he’s now inside a therapy cat that happened to be laying on his hospital bed. Soul’s far from being the first animated feature involving character swapping bodies for comedic effect, but here, the conceit takes on an odd subtext because of the lengths the story goes to in order to make you read 22 as a white woman despite the fact that she’s not supposed to be a “person” yet.
Throughout the film, Soul cuts to moments from 22's past in which she finally managed to drive her mentors—all of them different figures from history—to their breaking points. The “joke” is meant to be that 22's insufferability is insurmountable, explaining why she’s never been born, but it also ends up sort of subtracting from Soul’s insistence that 22 lacks the same sort of exposure to life experiences that other souls have. At one point when they’re discussing the nature of pre-Earth souls’ personalities and presentations, 22 cycles through a number of different voices before explaining that she chose Fey’s specifically for its annoying quality. While that logic might hold up to a point within the context of the movie, as an audience member, the explanation reads more like a diagram of the thought processes that led to Fey’s casting, and how we’re meant to find it inherently funny.
The wonder and surprise that 22 feels as she experiences living for the first time are meant to be magical to witness, and it is to a point. But this aspect of Soul’s story is often warped in ways that feel gross not just because 22's piloting Joe’s body to do simple human things that she never has (like eating), but because some moments very much feel like they should have been Joe’s to experience with his new lease on life—like when the pair of them end up in a nearby barbershop.
All of Joe and 22's antics on Earth revolve around the two of them rushing to get his body prepped for a gig later that evening that he needs to look sharp for—a gig he happened to luck into before his accident at the beginning of the movie. Part of Joe’s process involves getting his hair cut, and though he never expresses if his hair holds any particular significance for him, everything about the way Soul beautifully animates the barbershop scene conveys a significance you’re meant to read into the space itself.
The barbershop, like the scenes in which Joe and 22 interact with Joe’s seamstress mother (voiced by Phylicia Rashad), are moments in which the film distinctly feels as if it’s taken you into Black spaces where Joe’s interiority is more easily recognizable and expressive. But Soul frames these moments as belonging to 22 in a way that detracts from the movie’s message because they imply that Joe himself was never properly comfortable in them prior to his adventure.
After 22 threatens to toss Joe out of the barbershop at the barber’s insistence that the “cat” behaves, she ends up having the kind of deeply meaningful conversation with the man that Joe never could due to his feeling uncomfortable expressing himself. It’s in scenes like this or, later in the film when Joe interacts with his mother and her friends—all of whom are Black—that Soul comes across less like an earnest and casual celebration of everyday Blackness, and more like a twee depiction of it that’s meant for white audiences’ consumption. Even though Soul has two leads, this dynamic highlights how the movie often ends up treating Joe as a supporting character. His relative otherness to 22 who, again, reads as white in every aspect save for the character’s looks, is supposed to be the wondrous, life-changing thing that ends up giving 22 her spark to become a person.
For all the promise that Soul had of being Pixar’s big-bodied, full-throated love letter to jazz music that centered a Black lead, in the end, the movie barely delivers in any substantive way. By featuring a smattering of gorgeous visuals spotlighting different Black skin tones and hair textures, Soul shows us that the studio has the technical skills to make movies like Soul shine, aesthetically. But when it comes to telling stories that don’t find a way to center white people and their gazes, Soul proves that Pixar’s out of its depth.
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