Updated: Feb 1, 2021
Written By : Brianne A.
Editor : Kamilah aka OG MiLLYJaWN
Any company as old as Disney will have a long track record of missteps in diverse representation. Those as rich as Disney also have the privilege of taking their time to get it right. Fortunately, this article isn’t a bash on the fairy tale conglomerate. I've seen their animation go from Dumbo's Jim Crow to welcoming bi-racial families in Big Hero 6, appreciating international cultures with Coco, and learning to research proper representation for hits like Moana. Going into their newest release, “Soul”, I'm glad to say that this story of an urban middle school band teacher pursuing his dream of becoming a Jazz musician is another step in the right direction.
The first ad and teaser trailer for “Soul” dropped in November of 2019, before COVID decimated the film industry, but it didn't have a big impact with the public. I first heard about it through a meme:
"Disney-Pixar finally introduces a black main character, then promptly kills him off."
At first glance, this does seem like a turn off, but I firmly believe this movie knew what it was doing. It is exactly that clever self-awareness that gives Soul its charm, actually. Everywhere you look there are double meanings, sly puns, and competing themes. Joe Gardener (Jamie Foxx), the main protagonist, finds his passion for life through the soulful music of Jazz. More than anything, he wants his shot to play on a stage and he spends his life doing everything he can to get that one moment.
It is so very Disney to encourage people to pursue their dreams, however Soul falls more on the grim Pixar end of the spectrum. It is Joe's desperate determination to play that leads him to dying alone in a hole with an unfulfilling life. Soul is not a kid's movie. Yes, it is an animation, but I would not encourage anyone to sit a toddler down and expect it to hold the kid's interest. There are moments of bright cheer, a playful color palette, and some juvenile jokes. Majority of the film has a cooler color scheme though with a lot of shadowy blues and a lot of messages and plot development that really wouldn’t be appreciated by Disney's usual younger audience. From the more realistic cityscape coloring with red brick buildings to the banged up taxis and dead-end job references, this movie is definitely geared towards an audience with some depth and complex thoughts.
The film is aesthetically beautiful not only for the color but for the small details put in. Watching it on a 14" laptop with regular resolution, I could still see the threads of Joe's raggedy sweater as he played piano as well as the smooth fades on the heads of the men getting their haircut in the barbershop. For a movie about a soul venturing to the Great Beyond, everything from the visuals to the characters feels remarkably down to earth. In some ways, the film might have been too realistic. For example, our beloved Joe teaches you it is never too late to disappoint your mother.
I appreciate that “Soul” doesn't shy away from the fact that Joe Gardener has flaws. It actually makes a point to show how his largest flaw plays a major role in him ending up feeling like his life didn’t amount to much. He has a single-mindedness that alienates him from both his family and community. He doesn't realize he's missing out on human connection and life in general until he finds himself with his dreams fulfilled and an underwhelming realization that although he has what he wanted, it is not as satisfying as he thought it would be.
A majority of the movie is focused on this as the primary conflict. It makes Joe an intensely frustrating character to follow, but at the same time, selfishness, loneliness, and a search for meaning are uncomfortably easy to relate to. Older audiences will have an easy time empathizing with both Joe and the assortment of side characters. Soul stands apart from the rest of Disney’s profile because of this maturity.
I can’t wrap things up without giving mention to the music in this film. One would assume that the movie would be drowned in jazz melodies from start to finish since the main character lives and breathes it. In direct opposition to this thought, there is improvised jazz music played at certain parts but not the entire film. As the main character must come to learn that life does not simply revolve around him and that jazz isn’t everything, the film only uses jazz when necessary. The movie isn’t only about Joe or jazz, it’s about a persons’ soul and enjoying every moment of their life instead of living for one single event. The lack of lyrics or memorable tunes reinforces this. The beautiful renditions of jazz that are in the film are really just icing on this very deep, self-exploratory cake. This movie is sweet but will leave you with a desire to go Into your quiet place and do some self reflection.
Highlights: Jerry(s) and Terry are sides characters that have hilarious interactions. They remind me of a passive aggressive email chain at work.
Overall Score: 8.5/10
Best Quote from Film: "i heard this story about a fish. He swims up to this older fish and says, I'm trying to find this thing they call the ocean.' 'The ocean?’ says the older fish. 'That's what you're in right now.' 'This?' says the young fish. 'This is water. What I want is the ocean."