In the Disney movie “Soul”, Joe Gardner, played by Jamie Foxx, aspires to be a jazz musician, but his life takes an unexpected turn right after his big break.
This is also coincidentally where the movie takes a turn in the form of racial depictions of the characters.
Originally, “Soul” aspired to be the first Pixar film with a Black lead role, but many people in the audience felt this role was washed away by the depictions of Gardner in the film and how his character changed throughout the movie.
In his unexpected adventure, Gardner winds up in The Great Before, essentially where our souls exist before they are brought to Earth and must get his life back. In his time in The Great Before he works with the character 22, a soul looking for a purpose played by Tina Fey.
The issue that has arisen surrounding the film is that all the characters, including the people of color, were turned into blue souls, all shaped like round blobs.
“‘Soul’ steps into a dangerous trope that has become frequent in animation with leads of color. After Joe ‘dies,’ we see him turn into a green blob — a pattern we've seen of turning Black characters into creatures” Kristen Acuna, from Insider, said.
Acuna has a point, the lead characters lose sense of their individuality in the film when they pass to The Great Before, and as such they lose their physical bodies and characteristics as well.
Although, my personal feelings on the topic are that Pixar intended to make this change for several reasons. My ideas are not supported by Pixar but from drawing my own conclusions this is what I believe.
First, I think the purpose of taking Gardner, a lead Black role, and converting him to a blue soul just like all the other souls is to develop a sense of connection between all people. The concept of soul transcends color and Pixar wants to exemplify this with passions and interests of the souls bringing people together.
Second, on a much more surface level, I believe Pixar wants to show we are all the same on the inside and the color of our skin does not separate the likes and dislikes we hold as individuals.
Finally, the soul aspect was instated because it provides a metaphysical topic that is on the mind of all people and brings into focus questions of our reality. The movie wanted to accomplish this aspect by placing the main character into a headspace of confusion and feeling overwhelmed, so that it may be relatable to everyday people such as ourselves.
Another issue that was brought to light through reviews of the film was that for most of the movie Gardner was a cat while the soul 22 was living in Gardner’s body to find her purpose.
This presented an issue of degrading the lead role to an animal and I can see a clear issue with that here. In all honesty, this part of the film was done poorly and more of a sense of humanity should have been provided for Gardner’s role while he was on Earth.
Looking beyond the depictions of Gardner and other characters, the film does a great job of portraying the Black community and provides amazing characters such as Dez, played by Donnell Rawlings, giving vivacious personality to Gardner’s long time barber and friend.
“Soul” had a lot of anticipation ahead of its release because of how the film was marketed, and overall, it did an OK job in relation to ratings for the film.
The reviews went over quite well as the movie received an 8.1/10 on IMDb and a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes. While not accounting for individual reactions to the film, the positive reviews tell us more about how the overall message and theme of the movie was received.
“Soul” was not the perfect film in its depictions of people of color in Gardner. There was work that could have been done to improve his character, especially while his soul was in his body on Earth. I believe the animations of him as a soul were more light-hearted than some may have received it, but there was still undoubtedly room for improvement.
In the end, I personally think “Soul” was a great movie and would recommend it to anyone looking to draw their own conclusions and watch a tear-jerking, Pixar animated, deep film on the life of Joe Gardner.