It’s no secret that Walt Disney Pictures animation has a history of racist stereotypes, caricatures and ideas in its films. Last year, after the launch of its premier streaming service Disney+, the studio put “cultural warnings” on films that are blatantly racist, at the time of release and now.
Examples of Disney’s racism are plentiful and easy to spot. There’s the caricature of Black men via Dumbo’s crow sequence, harmful stereotypes of Asian people in Aristocats and Lady and the Tramp, the erasure of Native American genocide by romanticizing Pocahontas’s dealing with white colonists, the entire existence of Song of the South and many more examples, from Fantasia to Aladdin.
This history of racism from Disney matters because it can have a large influence on children’s perception of the world. They identify with the cutely drawn characters on screen and carry the ideas presented, explicitly or subliminally, into adulthood. Or, as Uncle Ben would say, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Disney-Pixar’s latest film, Soul, directed by Pete Docter, presents an opportunity to wrestle with that history because it’s the first Disney film to feature a black lead since Princess and The Frog in 2009. So was Disney’s Christmas present a re-wrapping of old ideas or a fresh direction for the studio?
Honestly, it’s a bit of both.
The Premise: *Spoilers Ahead*
Soul is set in New York City and focuses on Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a jazz pianist who longs to perform on stage but is stuck teaching middle school band. He catches a big break when former student Curley (Questlove) invites him to play with Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), a big-time saxophonist. He dazzles in the audition and is told to return that night for the show, but on the way out, he dies.
Joe ends up on a long staircase to an all-encompassing life, a clear metaphor for the afterlife. While other souls accept their fate, Joe takes control of his own destiny. He jumps off the spiritual bridge and lands in “The Great Before,” the place where souls exist before they become human.
There, he meets the second-lead, 22 (Tina Fey), a delinquent soul who can’t find her “spark,” the requisite for a soul to become a human being. 22’s been missing for over a thousand years despite being mentored by some of George Orwell, Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi and many other legends in the afterlife.
From there, the film focuses on the race to get back to Earth in time for the concert. Along the way, Joe and 22 teach each other the meaning of life and discover more about the people in his life from his barber, Dez (Donnell Rawlings) to his mother, Libba’s (Phylicia Rashad), apprehension over his musical aspirations.
Ultimately, Soul’s central questions are: “What makes all this living worth dying for?” “What makes you, you?” and “What are we searching for in life, and who can help us find it?”
The Good: “Joe Gardner, where have you been?” -Dorothea
Before discussing the pitfalls of Soul, it must be acknowledged that this film does a lot right. After all, there should be no doubt that Docter, the creator of Monsters Inc (2001), Up (2013) and Inside Out (2015), knows how to tell a story.
The foremost strength of Soul is its breathtaking animation. Its Black characters are beautifully rendered to look like real people, and I don’t recall any caricatures in sight. Specifically, the barber shop scene was an awesome example of how actual Black hairstyles ought to look on screen, a vast improvement from Disney Picture’s earlier works.
There’s also diversity in the skin colors present. Light skin people, Brown skin, dark skin people — they’re all here.
New York City is also beautifully captured. One could be forgiven, if at first glance, they mistook scenes for photos. The subways, bustling streets and overwhelming noise of the city are realized at one point or another.
Soul must also be commended for its themes. While its surface level philosophy, the goal of reassuring people that they have a purpose, even if they question what it is, surely must resonate with people of all ages.
Don’t be fooled, though: this movie isn’t all philosophy and pondering. The script had lots of jokes from beginning to end, even at one point, taking time to throw a savage shot at the Knicks, which viewers have taken note of.
The Bad: “My life was meaningless? No, no, no. No, I will not accept this.” -Joe
Soul doesn’t repeat the explicit racial tropes of Disney past but still has some poorly executed story concepts. The middle muddles for too long, and the mechanics of the afterlife are loosely established at best, but those don’t really matter. What the film fails on most is its racial commentary, which is subliminal but careless.
The biggest problem with this film is that Joe isn’t in his body for the majority of the movie. Just like in Princess and the Frog, The Emperor’s New Groove and Brother Bear, the non-white protagonist isn’t human for most of their screentime.
Joe is human for the first 10 minutes until he dies, and then when we see his body again, 22 is walking in it, not him. In doing so, the film robs Joe of the agency that he deserves. He spends far too much time chasing after selfish 22 during the second act.
There’s one scene where 22 leaves Joe in his room to go talk to one of his students, who’s struggling with school and wants to quit jazz. It’s a conversation that helps 22’s character arc but would’ve been far more emotionally resonant if Joe was talking to her.
He returns to his body in the last 40 minutes or so, but even then, we witness a Black character attempt to give up his ability to live so that 22, voiced by a white actress, can have a chance at life. That decision is bizarre because it’s shown that if 22 was in the same spot, she wouldn’t do the same for him. So what message does that send to young Black kids watching the movie?
Furthermore, while this movie is about jazz, it doesn’t do nearly enough to reference the great architects of the genre. This is a missed opportunity because imagine the joy that older watchers would have if this film had Easter eggs of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald or other icons.
Ultimately, beautiful animation, strong voice acting, charming writing and easy-to-digest existential philosophy make Soul a compelling watch but does not make up for Disney’s inability to truly center a Black hero with agency.
By no means is this movie racist. It’s a vast improvement over the explicit and extreme racism of the studio’s past, but I firmly believe that today’s younger generations need more than just an “improvement.” They deserve a true re-imagining of who Black characters are and what they can do in a Disney film. Despite all the great reviews, I don’t believe Soul does its young Black viewers justice.