You know that feeling you get when you really want to like something, but when you try it, it doesn’t fire on all cylinders like you thought it would? Well, let’s talk about Soul, Pixar’s latest animated feature.
Pixar finally created its first Black male lead character, and unfortunately, the story falls flat. There is a lack of the emotional gravitas that we are used to seeing from them. It’s fun, but I expected more. There was so much potential. They did so many things right but failed to hold our hearts all the way through.
Soul follows Joe Gardner as the musician who loves everything there is to love about jazz. With a steady gig as a middle school music teacher, Joe dreams of playing with the legends in the New York jazz clubs. On the day that Joe gets his big break, playing with jazz singer Dorothea Williams, he has an accident that takes him to the waiting room for the great beyond. Refusing to leave Earth behind, Joe escapes to the great before where he meets Soul 22.
22 is no fan of Earth and does not want to be born. Joe and 22 team up to get Joe back to his body and show 22 why living is so worth it.
The film stars the voice talents of so many great actors. The lead character of Joe is brought to life by Jamie Foxx (Ray). Soul 22, the unborn who finds Earth unspecial, is voiced by Tina Fey (30 Rock). Soul also features the talent of Angela Bassett (Black Panther), Phylicia Rashad (Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey), Questlove (The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon), Daveed Diggs (Hamilton), and Alice Braga (Queen of the South). The film is bursting with talented people from cast to animators. Soul is co-written and co-directed by Pete Docter (Monsters Inc.) and Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami) and features animators from some of our favorite Pixar films like Inside Out, Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 4.
Kemp and a group of consultants did what they could to bring a realistic view of Black culture to the project. Iconic moments happened on-screen that feature a community barbershop, a minority heavy public middle school, and a hot jazz club. The film also boasts important themes that center around finding your spark and reveling in the excitement of doing what you dream of doing. The film begs you to remember that moment you fell in love with what inspires you to keep going. It also encourages everyone to experience the beauty of what the world has to offer.
The film is bright and colorful. It is fun. It is whimsical. But, for a movie highlighted as the first Black lead for a Pixar film, we don’t get to see enough of the body and soul as one. It’s not as bad as the Princess and the Frog situation that we all talk about, but it is not great. From the outside, Soul looks like it is all about Joe Gardner, but feels like it is about 22. As lovable, sarcastic, and cheeky as that character is, it is not the Black man we planned on rooting for in the entire film. Is it too much to ask for an animated movie from a major studio claiming credit for the first Black male lead to have him stay on screen and be himself for the entire time?
The animation is inventive and introduces the industry to new techniques. Pixar is known for its innovative animation process. On top of visuals, the film boasts a great soundtrack. The jazz elements speak to the film. The compositions and arrangements are done by the talented Jon Batiste (The Late Show with Stephen Colbert). The original score is by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who have performed and composed for some of our favorite movies and TV shows, like Watchmen, Bird Box, Gone Girl, and Grey’s Anatomy. There is a universal sound that also speaks to the ethereal and spiritual components of the film. The music fills you up and proves just how moving and important it is, not only to Joe Gardner but to the real world as well. It reminds us that we all have a little Joe Gardner inside of us that craves the sound of our favorite songs and melodies.
Soul is full of music, full of heart, and highlights the Black culture missing from our animated adventures. There is no doubt connections will be made by the audience with the themes and the characters, but it still leaves something to be desired. Soul doesn’t supply that emotional spark that most Pixar films do. The film does come at a time in life when a lot of people are at a turning point, identifying what is important, and pursuing new passions in quarantine.
Identifying that spark is what the film is all about. Find out where Joe’s spark takes him in Soul, streaming December 25, 2020, on Disney+.