Disney has managed to tug at the public’s — that is, the public that can offer to pay for their monthly $6.99 streaming subscription — heartstrings yet again, this time with the release of the movie “Soul.” Although the Pixar flick is a refreshing change from all of the live action movies and sequels that Disney has been churning out lately, it still follows the tried-and-true formula of Disney films; at the core, a misunderstood character undergoes an intense experience that changes his life for the better. The most revolutionary aspect of the film is that it is the first Pixar movie to star a Black lead, but even the racial significance of this fact feels watered down among all of the other heavy topics that the movie explores.
Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), music teacher by day and aspiring jazz musician by night, is finally getting his big break. After teaching disinterested teenagers for years, one of his pupils reaches out to invite him to audition for one of his music heroes, Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Dorothea recognizes his bursting passion and his honed talent, but in a cruel twist of fate (that Pixar manages to animate in a quirky, beautifully illustrated way through the New York City landscape), Joe dies on the way to his apartment by falling into a manhole. For the rest of the movie, Joe is a cutesy animated blob who’s only semblance to his former self is through his fedora and glasses. This resulted in one of the main criticisms of the film, and one mainly deserved. The public has noticed a pattern between Disney’s tendency in casting people of color, especially Black people, in lead roles only to quickly replace them by a nonhuman counterpart. It was the same in “Princess and the Frog” — the first Black Disney princess was an animal for the majority of the film. If Disney is to continue to flaunt their “advances” in racial equity, they must also match it by providing their Black leads with the same opportunities that their white leads receive.
Performativity aside, “Soul” is funny and heartfelt. Joe joins the combative Soul 22 (Tina Fey) in a quest to get back into his body, and 22 provides most of the humorous commentary and heart-tugging introspection. In a hilarious twist, 22 winds up in Joe’s body, and Joe winds up in the body of a therapeutic cat. In Joe’s body, 22 makes the most of her time on Earth by exploring the cuisine New York City has to offer and, in a tremendously lovely shot of autumn in the city, appreciates the little things the world has to offer. Scenes of 22 simply appreciating spending time with family, helping and listening to friends or even enjoying the sun on her skin are the most impactful, especially now that most people are stuck quarantining away from family or friends.
This theme of finding enjoyment in the small pleasures of life instead of living solely for the future, for big goals or for accomplishments, was a new but welcome topic for viewers. Pixar has always been good at getting its audience to shed tears, but branching out into this more mature topic is a good move for its viewership; adults who grew up watching Pixar films are sure to appreciate this serious topic just as much as children, the prime audience, are sure to appreciate the talking cat.
With lockdowns still in place, it is also a really pertinent film, down to its method of distribution. Movie theaters are still closed, but for less than $10 a month, interested individuals are able to watch “Soul” and the rest of the films on Disney+. Unlike “Mulan,” which was available to subscribers for a premium fee on top of the monthly fee, “Soul” is completely free if one is already a subscriber.
Most importantly, the movie will manage to convince the audience to count their lucky stars for the little things in their routine now that most people are fed up with continuing to stay inside the home with limited entertainment. Additionally, although the film was the first Pixar film not to have a theatrical release, it did not take away from its critical success. It surely would have been a box-office hit, but Disney can rest assured that they can continue to make fans happy with online streaming.
Verdict: “Soul” is sweet, wholesome and funny. The main characters lead the audience on a road to introspection in a way that takes itself just seriously enough. While lockdown has dashed the film’s hopes for a theatrical release, online streaming this movie will remind people to be grateful for the little pleasures in life.