Pixar chooses to stay apolitical. In 'Soul,' does this work?
by Ben Kim Paplham
Soul is different.
The magic of Pixar has always been their ability to express emotional universality, attempting to speak to some universal truth that any audience member can relate to. At Pixar’s best, the audience is hit with an emotional reckoning along with the characters, and at their worst, we get "The Good Dinosaur."
If we want to get super nerdy here, we can think of the history of Pixar as an epic battle between Universal Emotion and Audience Response.
Universal Emotion, I propose, is dissecting the value of a story — and thus, one’s emotional response — based solely on the elements of storytelling. This is the standard that has served Pixar for 25 years.
For example, Ego’s review in "Ratatouille" states the core message, “a great artist can come from anywhere,” but what transforms it from a saccharine sentiment are the universal concepts of family support and societal prejudice — emphasized by Remy’s family pitching in as emergency line chefs. Or take "Finding Nemo." Anyone is able to identify with a parent’s fear of losing their child while struggling to let their kid become their own person (or fish).
What Universal Emotion neglects, but what Audience Response proposes, is that the audience is constantly placing their own life experiences and expectations onto a story before, during, and after viewing it.
Because "Cars" is very much fantasy NASCAR, someone could justifiably criticize it for centering a sport where, up until 2020, the confederate flag was more visible than Black racers. The leap to think about Remy as a parallel to the lack of opportunities for disenfranchised communities is not very far. And on a more personal level, rewatching "Finding Nemo" may be more difficult in light of the recent Ellen DeGeneres scandal, but I can’t deny the fact that, as a disabled kid growing up in the early 2000s, I saw in Nemo the same sort of stubbornness and frustrations as I saw in myself.
But the history of Pixar, and this is a bold assumption that I’m asking you to allow me to make for the rest of this article, is one that resists Audience Response. In other words, Pixar relies on the audience to evaluate the film for the story itself before considering outside biases.
The use of non-human characters is a two-step plan for Pixar: It’s a built-in device to stay apolitical with characters and settings based in fantasy, which makes it more accessible to children. Obviously, animals and toy characters make a film more marketable, but what has worked best for Pixar in this regard is when they do not forget that children, like Riley from "Inside Out," also feel the same emotions as adults — they just don’t have the language to express it yet. Funneling emotions through non-human characters allow both kids and adults to immerse themselves in the story without thinking about real-world applications of concepts such as race, ethnicity, or gender identity.
The reason this is important is that "Soul," which is the first Pixar film to feature a Black lead, is also the first time in its history where they’ve actively, within the film itself, acknowledged the real-world implications of how its story could be perceived by its audience.
So why would Pixar do this?
Well, to be quite frank, it would have been disastrous if they did not. For exactly 26 minutes of "Soul," the body and voice of a Black man is controlled by a white American woman. Or so it would seem.
The magic of Pixar has always been their ability to express emotional universality.
Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a middle-school music teacher who believes that he was born to do one thing: Play jazz piano. He finally receives the chance he has been waiting for his entire life when he is asked to fill in for Dorothea Williams’s quartet at the Half Note Jazz Club, but in his exuberance he falls down a manhole. And dies. He’s taken to the afterlife, where he finds that souls look like electrical blue Pillsbury dough boys and are transported along a conveyor belt (resembling half-note black keys on a piano) to an expansive sun of white stardust.
Joe tries to flee, falling off the belt and down, down, down, past "2001" space oddity dimensions and Donald Judd-like geometric designs. When Joe finally lands, he finds himself in The Great Before: A landscape of translucent colorful grass and far-reaching lilac hills, which are overgrown with cattail trees and dotted with organic edifices. In the Great Before, pre-souls take on the appearance of children and gain different personalities by passing through seashell-pavilions marked “excitable,” “flamboyant,” or “self-absorbed,” among others.
This is also where Joe meets the Counselors known as “Jerry” — 2-dimensional entities of purple iridescence, like animated Alexander Calder wire sculptures.
Jerry A (Alice Braga) and B (Richard Ayoade) mistake Joe for a fellow mentor — a dead soul who helps soul-children find their “spark” — and give him the You Seminar orientation, matching him with a soul-child.
The problem is that the Jerries pair Joe with 22 (Tina Fey), a sarcastic, rebellious, old soul-child who has been living in the Great Before for thousands of years, and has been matched with hundreds of mentors already — none of whom could make her "spark" fill in. At one point, we even visit 22’s cardboard box home where we see name tags of all the mentors (like Abraham Lincoln or Joan of Arc) who have come before Joe.
22 has long since given up ever going to Earth, and is very resistant to Joe’s insistence that they at least try. But while Joe is wandering the Hall of You, he has a mid/post-life crisis about how his time was spent on Earth — one of the more prominent displays in his personal museum exhibit is a stone monument of him sitting despondently in a laundromat. He starts to believe that his life amounted to nothing of importance — a feeling not helped by 22’s observation, “Your life is so sad and pathetic.”
She commiserates in his misery though, offering up her own abject failure to find her spark as evidence that nothing on Earth is worth living for anyway. Joe tries to make her excited about the different sounds and smells and tastes Earth has to offer (like pizza!), but instead she just amuses herself by slapping Joe across his face to show that unborn or dead souls don’t have human senses.
Still, she takes Joe to “The Zone,” an astral plane like a midnight stardust dessert, where lost souls roam. In this liminal space, Joe helps make a portal to enter back into Earth, where his body is peacefully resting on a hospital bed … except when he tries to jump in, 22 accidentally stumbles in as well, and … Joe wakes up as a therapy cat and 22 wakes up in Joe’s body.
The obvious question that some people will have about “Soul” is whether the movie whitewashes Joe Gardner.
The obvious question that some people will have about "Soul" is whether the movie whitewashes Joe Gardner.
In general, cartoon whitewashing has only become a matter of recent controversy; it’s why Jenny Slate stepped down from her role as Missy in Big Mouth, why Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem with Apu contributed to Hank Azaria leaving "The Simpsons," and why I still personally struggle with Alison Brie voicing Diane Nguyen in "Bojack Horseman," one of my all-time favorite shows.
When the trailer for "Soul" dropped, everyone wondered, with no small amount of apprehension, if this was going to be a step backward from Black narratives such as Hair Love or "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse." There was even a viral post that added "Soul" to the list of animated films, like "The Princess and the Frog" or "Spy," which erase Black human bodies by turning Black main characters into animals.
Pixar also lost a lot of trust from audiences during the 2010s. The influx of sequels, the critical and commercial failure of "The Good Dinosaur," and John Lasseter’s brief exile from animation were warning signs of a company that had lost its way.
It was the warning that "Soul" is different, because Pixar had never done a socially self-aware film before.
The closest they had ever gotten was "The Incredibles 2," which never fully realized its potential as a civil rights narrative. The plot centers on government hostility and social indifference, which causes inter-family dissonance; Elastigirl spearheading a civil movement for legal citizenship causes conflict within the Parr family over how they should respond to the “othering” … the parallels to reality are obvious.
So when the body swap in "Soul" happens, and 22 is now speaking from Joe’s body — and Joe also speaking as a cat — the immediate reaction is to think to yourself, “Is this cringe?” as some critics seemed to do.
The main reason is our associative bias. Because we know that 22 is voiced by Tina Fey, and know what she looks like, what she sounds like, and even a lot about her life as a celebrity — it’s almost impossible not to use language that describes 22 as a “she” or, more specifically, a white woman. In fact, some people — say adults who never grew up with "30 Rock" or kids today — will hear 22’s voice and it won’t even register that this is a very famous voice. But when Joe first meets 22, he actually asks, “Why do you sound like a middle-aged white lady?” 22 then proceeds to shapeshift and take on a few different body shapes and voices — including a little girl’s voice — to show that she can sound however she pleases, but “I just use this voice because it annoys people.”
This is not just some throwaway gag. For one, it forces the audience, even those unfamiliar with Fey, to identify 22 with a specific gender, race, and age. This is Pixar showing a meta-awareness that casting Fey would inevitably make some audiences refuse to see 22 as anything but a white woman — but at the same time, it’s Pixar pleading for the audience to view 22 as an independent entity within the constraints of the plot.
If we do, perhaps we’re more willing to see 22 in light of the prototypical non-human Pixar model. Her name is literally just a number, and her appearance is a soul-child. The intention behind the casting of Tina Fey as 22, and consequently, the reason for 22’s visual form of a child paired the voice of an adult, is to create a universal character for both kids and adults — the conflicting emotion behind wanting to be yourself but also being afraid of being yourself is something that anyone can relate to. In one of the most poignant moments of the film, 22 confesses to Joe, “The truth is I’ve always worried that there’s something wrong with me, you know? Maybe I’m not good enough for living. But then you showed me about purpose and passion, and maybe sky-watching can be my purpose. Or walking. I’m really good at walking.”
But intention isn’t always enough. What we’re presented with is equally, and some might say, even more important. And so, this article’s lingering question still remains — Can a white woman be a Black man?
But what the question is actually speaking to is the underlying fear that, by body-swapping Joe and 22, "Soul" takes away agency from a Black person in favor of a white narrative, thus discrediting Black experience.
I believe that "Soul" does not. And to finally call a truce on the battle between the Pixar Model and Audience Perception, my final piece of the argument is that Joe’s identity is never stolen from him in favor of someone else’s. And without spoiling the entire film (I’ve already spoiled enough), the most clear example of how "Soul" addresses this is in Joe’s relationship to his mother.
Joe believes that the "spark" is somehow related to purpose — that in order to belong to Earth and to the human race, one has to be actively doing something productive to have a life worth living. “Soul” begins with Joe being offered a full-time position as the middle school’s music teacher. But whereas this only fills Joe with dread, his mom is ecstatic at the prospect of his financial stability. “You can’t eat dreams,” she tells her son, when Joe insists that he feels like he was born to be a jazz pianist.
Later, when 22 is Joe and Joe is a cat, they find themselves in Libba Gardner’s tailor shop, in need of an emergency mending. After a misunderstanding leads to a confrontation about Joe’s dreams of being a jazz musician, Joe directs 22 on what to say to his mother. The camera then sweeps across the room, a close-up of Libba’s head dividing the screen in half, and when we move past her body, the film synchronizes Joe’s body and voice together. Even though 22 is technically still in Joe’s body, artistically — both visually and sonically — Joe has regained control over the rhythm of the conversation. When Joe says, “I’m just afraid that if I died today, that my life would’ve amounted to nothing,” it looks and feels like Joe speaking for himself. And narratively, this is emphasized by his mother's heartbroken response — “Joey…” — calling out his name. She believes that she is speaking to her son because she recognizes his soul in these words. A mark of the Pixar Model, one of the core emotional scenes in the play relies on universal, parent-child relationships, and the expression of desiring more out of life.
“Soul” does not revive the “white savior” trope nor does it lean into “magical negro” territory — in other words, neither Joe nor 22 serve as a prop piece to the other’s story. Their relationship becomes symbiotic in nature; each has their own particular obsessions and fears, which need a mentor’s experience and a child’s curiosity respectively. Their joys are internal; their passions are internal. Sometimes it’s just an appreciation for natural occurrences or the absurdity in everyday life. One of the most important emotional motifs of “Soul” is a helicopter maple seed — a meditation on the fact that things exist. Something as benign as finding joy in catching a helicopter seed isn’t a purpose or a service, but a small bit of happiness in quiet ephemeral moments.
22 is the non-human entity who serves as a metaphor for struggling to understand who you are or where you belong, but Joe is the one who drives home the message that simply the desire to be alive, to be human, is enough validation for your existence. Even if we perceive 22 as a strictly white woman, Pixar crafts “Soul” in such a way that the Universal Emotion of simply being alive — and most keenly felt when Joe is seen as Joe — takes precedence over social or political issues. Through Joe and 22, the film reaches the conclusion that your spark isn’t something you do … it’s your soul. f