Pixar’s ‘Soul’ is part of an animation issue: Why can’t black people stay black?
Soul is not your typical lighthearted romp like many of Disney’s other animated movies. Pixar’s metaphysical story explores heavy subjects like the afterlife and the great beyond – a tough act to pull off.
But Soul somehow manages to accomplish the amazing feat of introspection while providing a deeper worldview even by Pixar’s standards – at least according to the critics.
Despite being treated as the most creative & soul-searching film of the Pixar lineup, Soul failed to impress the audience with its teaser. The trailer of the film worried many fans who speculated that Soul may be the latest addition to the running list of animated movies perpetuating the harmful trope of transforming the Black leads into other beings.
Dehumanizing non-white characters
Animated films today present seismic problems in regards to racial tropes which must be pondered. Soul’s inclusion of a black character as the lead may appear revolutionary but is decidedly not.
The unfettered growth of racial trope in animated movies that turn non-white characters into animals or other beings is troubling, to say the least.
Just look at The Princess and The Frog, where Disney turned its first Black princess, Princess Tiana, into a frog for the bulk of the movie, or Twentieth Century Fox animated film Spies in Disguise, where a Black top-secret agent is turned into a pigeon.
And now, Soul kills the main Black character in the first few minutes of the movie and turns him into a blueish-green manifestation of his soul, going by the film’s trailer. Granted, the movie has not yet been released, so we can’t really say if the character will remain a green glob for the majority of the film or not.
Soul is heralded as the first Pixar movie led by an African American character, so naturally, the studio would want to ensure they got everything right from the story to the soundtrack.
During a virtual press conference per Insider, the creative team behind Soul revealed they sought out a group of cultural & musical consultants to make sure the story was authentic to the Black culture & jazz music scene.
According to Insider, the cultural & musical consultants brought on the sets of the movie included Questlove, Jon Batiste, educator Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, actor Daveed Diggs, Herbie Hancock, Marcus McLaurine, Dr. Peter Archer, Dr. Christopher Bell, Terri Lyne Carrington, George Spencer, and Bradford Young.
On being asked about the backlash on the trailer, Pete Docter, director of Soul, explained during the virtual press conference, “We were unaware of that [trope] as we started, but we certainly became aware”.
Docter continued: “My hope is that when you see the whole film, there is plenty of Joe on screen. I think we have over 50 percent on Earth that follows Joe’s life, his places of where he goes, people he’s with, and then the other part is in the soul world”.
Kemp Powers, co-director of Soul, added, “I’m as sensitive to those things as anyone else. For me, it’s definitely about the context in which you tell this character’s story. There were a lot of caution cones we had to put up . . . [to,] for the first time, [tell] a Black man’s story in an animated film, being aware of how easy it is to go off the rails.”
Despite the filmmakers’ reassurances, we can’t ignore the fact that Soul’s trailer does promote the increasingly prevailing trope of transforming the non-white characters into different beings. But will the movie succeed in prioritizing the character’s arch or fall victim to Hollywood’s long-running racial tropes? Only time will tell.