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Review: Pixar's Soul is a Christmas Miracle

Simoa DeJesus, in her BCM debut, brings her Pixar expertise to the fore in finding the deeper meaning behind "Soul" and its unique take on the "bodiless Black" animated film trope.

Editor's note: spoiler alert!

A Pixar fan since childhood, I started blogging about the animation studio in 2010. I've been the editor in chief of a Pixar blog for six years now and it's allowed me to visit the studio three times. I have given a great deal of thought to the studio's lack of Black characters.

Soul would be the first film in the studio's history to have a Black protagonist, dating back to their debut feature Toy Story in 1995. That's 25 years of storied animation history. I was so over the moon when Soul was first announced, but that initial excitement was slightly dampened.

My heart fell when the film's theatrical trailer premiered.

"Not this again," I thought, when Joe was transformed into a blueish-green blob.

This would be the third mainstream animated film from a big studio where the Black main character didn't stay human for the entire runtime. Pixar movies are always the ones I'm eagerly awaiting in any given year, but Soul was different. Part of me just didn't care.

Although I came to my own conclusions about why this pesky trope wasn't as egregious this time around, I knew the people who were upset over it had every right to be. The Princess and the Frog and Spies in Disguise see the main characters turned into unflattering animals. The latter film felt so much more gimmicky, too.

Soul was different, because Joe wasn't an animal but an essence, much like the emotions in Inside Out. I was able to watch the first 35 minutes of the film in September, and my worries were laid to rest. Joe only spends about 20 minutes in his soul form.

I'm hoping that Soul will be the last animated movie to utilize this trope.

When I interviewed Aphton Corbin and Michael Yates, two story artists on the film, they felt confident about Pixar's commitment to diversity and inclusion. The studio has always been sincere about this work, long before Soul was in production.

Along with Corbin, Yates, and co-director/screenwriter Kemp Powers, an internal story trust made up of Pixar's Black employees was formed to make the film as authentic as possible. Outside cultural consultants were also brought in. I'm happy to say that the film doesn't veer into any tired stereotypes or racial caricatures. Soul is lovingly rooted in Black culture and music.

Comparisons between it and Inside Out, another Pete Docter film, are inevitable. And while there are similarities, Soul is not a spin-off. Inside Out was inspired by Docter’s teenage daughter making the confusing transition into adolescence. Soul was partly inspired by Docter’s 23 year old son, whose personality already seemed firmly fixed from the moment he was born.

Both films were born out of questions Docter had as a parent.

Do you ever look at someone and wonder what is going on inside their head?What makes you you?

But there was a darker question underpinning Soul’s origins: If I had a choice, would I decide to be born?

Like many people, one of my Christmas traditions is watching It's a Wonderful Life. Frank Capra’s timeless classic stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a man who's always put his dreams on hold for the sake of others. Life has beaten him down, as has the villain of the piece, Mr. Potter.

Potter represents unchecked greed and cruelty, a symbol of capitalism that always seeks to oppress the poor. On Christmas Eve, George decides to end his life, but divine intervention comes to his aid in the form of the bumbling but sweet angel, Clarence. He's been sent down to save George, but also to show him what the world would be like if he'd never been born.

I know myself and others have often felt like George. We think our family and friends would be much better off if we simply didn't exist. But George gets to see just how untrue that is.

I wonder what the world would look like if I wasn't in it. I doubt it would be as dramatic or potent as George Bailey’s. I never saved anyone's life; I haven't stood up to a greedy banker and made it possible for working-class people to own homes and send their children to school. Joe Gardner hasn't either.

About ten minutes into Soul, Joe dies. The afterlife is an enormous black expanse with a stairway leading to The Great Beyond. Joe is terrified and not ready to go—not when this was supposed to be the best day of his life, his dream to play with a renowned jazz group finally tangible.

He runs away and is transported to The Great Before, where souls are assigned personalities. Joe gets mistaken for a mentor and is paired up with a soul named 22. She's gone through dozens of mentors, including such icons as Mother Theresa (who she made cry), Muhammad Ali, Marie Antoinette, and Carl Jung. None of these celebrated people succeeded in inspiring 22 to live on earth.

But when she sees Joe's life—unremarkable and full of failures—her interest is piqued.

"Joe, I have been here for who knows how long, and I've never seen anything that's made me want to live. And then you come along. Your life is sad and pathetic. And you're working so hard to get back to it. Why? This I gotta see!"

When the mismatched pair journey to earth, 22 finally sees for herself why all this "living is worth dying for." She discovers the simple joys of life. There are no grand statements, but a pretty powerful revelation nonetheless: life is worth living, even if yours isn't particularly important. And it's not only 22 who discovers the meaning of life, but Joe as well.

In the barbershop scene, Joe learns that his barber Dez once had dreams of being a veterinarian, but had to put those dreams on hold when his daughter got sick. 22 mistakenly believes that Dez is now unhappy with his life, but that couldn't be farther from the truth.

Pete Docter is a Christian, and his faith has informed his art in subtle ways. Inside Out communicated a truth about our shared faith: we're not destined to be happy. It even went a step further with the message that sadness, the most inconvenient and uncomfortable emotion, is necessary for a fulfilled life.

There's another theological truth in Soul: our identities are not rooted in our talents or hobbies. As Christians, our identity is meant to mirror Christ. He should increase while we decrease. The film also shows us how our ambition and passions can turn into obsessions that leave us disconnected from life. What happens when your self-worth is determined by your ability, and not in the radical truth that God Himself died to know you?

Soul concerns itself with the idea that your purpose in life is simply to exist, to enjoy the boring moments. This is still relevant to a Christian. Many of us won't attain the greatness of martyrs or Doctors of the Church. But our striving for holiness—those small, daily sacrifices, taking up our cross and following the narrow path to eternal life—these are still important.

“I remember one day I was biking and I stopped and picked a raspberry. It was warmed by the sun and became the most amazing raspberry I ever had. I still remember that nearly-nothing moment vividly. Almost any moment in our lives could be a transcendental moment that defines why we’re here.”
(Pete Docter)

As Dez sees it, not everyone can invent blood transfusions, but everyone's life still matters. And I can't overstate the importance of a film where the Black protagonist simply gets to exist. Joe doesn't need to prove that he's remarkable in any way; he doesn't need to achieve grand things in order to be deemed worthy of living.

We exist. And that has made all the difference.

My new Christmas tradition will be to watch a double feature of Soul and It's a Wonderful Life.

Simoa DeJesus is editor in chief of Upcoming Pixar. She is based in Boston, frequently surprised by God's stubborn love and mercy, and a big fan of mystery, beauty, myth, and fairy tales.

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