Like millions of other viewers, we loved Pixar’s Soul. We enjoyed what we understood to be the messages of hope that it proclaimed, both for adults and children alike. But some critics have pointed out one problem with the film that deserves more than a passing mention in a review: Pixar’s first black protagonist is killed off within the first ten minutes of the film – to be replaced with a cat. This is not the first time this trope has been used in film, so let’s discuss why it’s the greatest problem with Pixar’s Soul as well as in other films, but first read our original review here.
“Animorphism is practically synonymous with animation,” writes Jason Kehe for Wired. “Disney turns real boys into donkeys; Miyazaki morphs parents into pigs; the son of Jankovic’s white mare falls somewhere between a horse and a man. Some 44,000 years ago, early humans sketched therianthropes on the walls of caves—same thing”. This isn’t even the first time Pixar has used it.We’ve been seeing it for generations, and so it’s no wonder that for many of us the fact that it may be problematic in Pixar’s Soul slipped right over our heads.
We’ve seen our human protagonists transform – for the better – into animals so many times. The Princess and the Frog allows Tiana to find true love as a frog. Kubo and the Two Strings has Kubo reconnecting with his parents while they’re in the form of a snow monkey and a beetle. My personal favourite, The Emperor’s New Groove, has the spoilt and conceited Kuzco grow into a more well-rounded person while he’s stuck in the body of a llama, of all things.
Like all of the characters that came before him, Soul‘s Joe was somewhat incomplete. His relationship with his family is strained, and he doesn’t feel like he’s living up to his full potential. As we’ve already mentioned, the film sees Joe, voiced by Jamie Foxx, kick the bucket pretty early on, after which he goes to the spirit realm and meets another soul voiced by Tina Fey. Through a series of very Pixaresque events, they end up back on earth, but with one problem: Joe ( aka Jamie Foxx) is now trapped in the boddy of an overweight cat, while his human body is now inhabited by the Tina Fey soul.
Together they run around, with Tina-Joe solving a few of the personal problems original Joe had been struggling with, while he becomes – as you could have guessed – a better human, despite being in the body of a cat. And herein lies the problem.
Kehe argues that this replacement of human character with animals – after which they manage to solve problems they couldn’t while in their human bodies – only happens to a certain type of character.
He starts by pointing out that prior to the release of Soul, Pixar had released Out – an 8-minute short film which includes the studio’s first gay protagonist, Greg. Greg get’s turned into a dog, and it’s only while in the body of his canine companion that he and his mother can truly connect and be honest with each other.
“It’s not just Greg and Joe,” writes Kehe. “Tiana was Disney’s first Black princess, Merida Pixar’s first female lead. The characters in Brother Bear are indigenous, and Kuzco et al. are Incan. Kubo is Japanese, Robyn is possibly queer. Bodily transformation is all but required, it seems, whenever the main character is a first for the genre. To become fully human, they can’t, for a spell, be human”.
While stripping these genre pioneers of their humanity in the name of plot development may be lost on many of us, those who can relate to the characters may not feel quite as comfortable with the idea. What we watched was Pixar dips their toe into the pool of inclusivism, praising their “great leaps forward”, while ignoring the fact that they refuse to commit entirely to their characters as human beings until after they’ve seen audience reactions to them.
The problem with Pixar’s Soul is not obvious to most, and while we still believe there’s a lot to appreciate in the film, if we had thought about it from this angle while watching it, we may have viewed it slightly differently. One thing’s for certain, though: We’ll be approaching animated films in the future armed with this knowledge, and ready to identify when we’re being used as guinea pigs for a studio’s tentative dip into diversity – and urging them to cannon ball right in instead.