Why You Shouldn’t Celebrate Pixar’s ‘Soul’ for Finally Having a Black Lead
From ‘Soul’ to ‘The Emperor’s New Groove,’ Disney has a problem with letting lead characters of color remain human.
Cinema this Christmas was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. With theatrical releases available to stream on demand due to the pandemic, I got a chance to watch many new releases over holiday dinner and cocktails, as family and friends reflected on how such film experiences, and many other events, have changed drastically this year.
But when I watched Soul, the latest Disney/Pixar animated film, I was sadly reminded of how far things still have to go.
The film, now streaming exclusively on Disney+, follows a Black middle-school music teacher named Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), who is on a magical quest to reunite his soul and his body as his dream of becoming a successful jazz musician takes off. I was ecstatic when news first broke that this would be Pixar animation’s first Black-led feature—after years of giving us mostly white superheroes, cowboys, and inanimate objects. Soul felt like a step in the right direction for Hollywood, during a time when Black Lives Matter protests have forced the industry to address its ongoing diversity problem and make immediate changes (such as the decision for many white voice actors to stop playing characters of color).
Pixar’s latest film is a return to form for a company that has built a reputation for heartwarming stories with a creative twist, but these stories continue Disney’s tradition of giving Black leading bodies little screen time as they often morph into either an animal or something else inhuman. If you were looking to watch a very lively Gardner grooving to jazz throughout the film, as was suggested in various trailers and commercials, guess again. Expect to see a melanin-less soul with the voice of Foxx floating through much of the film instead; and if that weren’t enough, Gardner’s body is later overtaken by another soul, voiced by Tina Fey, while Gardner assumes the form of a cat). This is infuriating, not because such representations of Black and brown physical bodies in animation are limited, but because it’s been done purposely by one of the world’s most renowned studios.
I was born in 1991, at the height of what would be known as the Disney renaissance, a 1990s string of successful animated musicals from the studio that redefined the genre. I grew up watching Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan, and Tarzan. Only three of those films had a lead character that was non-white (Aladdin, Pocahontas, and Mulan), but still played into either ahistorical and/or stereotypical depictions of their backgrounds nonetheless. There were still no Black or Latinx leading characters that Disney felt worthy of a film all to themselves, but then again, who would have wanted to be depicted under such a previously problematic lens?
With the aughts came signs of progress at the House of Mouse—until they were revealed to be hollow gestures toward inclusion. The Emperor’s New Groove (2000) is set in Peru and stars a hilarious Incan prince, Kuzco, who quickly transforms into a llama for most of the film. The same occurs in the 2003 film Brother Bear, except this time the leading Inuit character named Kenai transforms into a bear 16 minutes into the film and decides to stay as one until the very end. Perhaps when matters finally got worse was in 2009, when the studio introduced the world to its first Black Disney princess, Tiana, in The Princess and the Frog. After 30 minutes of giving us charm, grace, and a show-stopping musical number (“Almost There” is one of the most underrated Disney songs), the most vibrant Disney princess we’ve seen in years turns into a frog for most of the film. Although the hit animated feature, just like The Emperor’s New Groove and Brother Bear, would garner critical acclaim and Oscar nominations, audiences were cheated once again of the chance to see a full-fledged animated character of color on the big screen.
Following The Princess and the Frog, Disney pretty much returned to whiteness in the 2010s, as a slew of animated films focused on white characters and storylines that were much more safer and aligned with their hit renaissance era (films such as Tangled, Frozen, Frozen II, and those Toy Story sequels, to name a few). Although Moana (2016) centered on a Polynesian princess who kept her limbs intact for the entire film, when Disney/Pixar finally decided to give us a Latinx leading character in Coco (2017), he would turn into a skeleton as he convened with the dead—who were also a bunch of Latinx skeletons.
Which brings us to the end of the decade and the missed opportunity that was Soul—a reminder that leading animated characters of color still aren’t desired by studios to play humans. When it’s already hard enough to find Black leads in live-action theatrical films, to witness such systemic racism carry on in animation at this point is devastating. The situation has gotten so bad that there’s currently a Change.org petition with over 2,500 signatures calling on animation studios to “STOP Animation Trope that Dehumanizes Black Characters.” For the industry to continue this pattern of characters of color being anything but human, regardless of the Black A-lister voicing them (still pissed that Blue Sky Studios had Will Smith voicing a Black spy who transforms into a New York pigeon in 2019’s Spies in Disguise), strips people of color of our humanity. The wound is deeper knowing that for younger generations, these animated features will be their first experiences with cinema as a whole. Quite the first impression.
To this day, I still envy how younger brothers got an experience I never got growing up when they watched 2018’s Spider Man: Into the Spider-Verse. For the first time, they got to watch a leading animated Black character turn into a beloved superhero without any gimmicks or short-changes. It meant something for them to see Miles, an Afro-Latinx teen, interact with law enforcement, have hair that looked like theirs, and hear a soundtrack featuring hip-hop artists they appreciated. That same feeling could be felt with the release of Matthew Cherry’s 2019 Oscar-winning animated short Hair Love, which gave us an adorable Black father/daughter duo who lovingly navigated hairy endeavors.
While representation matters, how such imagery of diverse characters is depicted in film matters even more. Black and brown people not only deserve audio representation in animated cinema, but full screen time in their complete bodies as well. To see characters of color on the big screen is to humanize them just like everyone else. I want to see them cry, laugh, and emote with darker complexions. That shouldn’t be too much to ask for at this point.
The late Walt Disney once famously said that “animation offers a medium of storytelling and visual entertainment which can bring pleasure and information to people of all ages everywhere in the world.” As we head into the new decade, I would only hope Hollywood finally recognizes that such a medium should include Black and brown characters in their complete fullness with their souls—and bodies—intact.