There are plenty of movies that might have their hearts in the right place but still succumb to problematic tropes. That is something that the people behind Pixar's new movie were doing their best to avoid. They brought on a massive cultural counsel to help them with the movie and brought on Kemp Powers as a co-writer and co-director. However, there is one trope that the movie does fall into but to get into it, we need to talk about the mid-movie twist that has largely gone unspoiled by the marketing, so if you don't want to know what the middle section of Soul looks like don't read beyond this picture of Joe enjoying music in the subway.
In the second half of the movie, Joe does make it back to Earth but accidentally ends up in the body of a therapy cat called Mr. Mittens and 22, who is voiced by Tina Fey, ends up in Joe's body. For the second act of the movie, the two of them walk around New York City together as 22 experiences Earth through Joe's memories and body while Joe sees his life from an outside perspective. Director and writer Pete Docter spoke to Entertainment Tonight about the twist and why they decided to put it into the movie.
We were looking for some way for Joe to be able to look at his own life from a different perspective. We couldn't give him everything he wanted, because the movie's over if he gets back, so this was a way for Joe to walk through all the spaces, meet all the people and deal with things that he was trying to deal with as a human but see it from a different perspective and appreciate it then.
Co-director and co-writer Kemp Powers went on to say to talk about the comedy but also why it was so important to Soul as a whole.
We had long discussions about the fact that it's great from a comic perspective — the kids are going to get a real kick out of this — but Joe being stuck in the cat has to serve a purpose, and the purpose is for him to be able to see his life from a slightly different perspective. And it wasn't quite working until we landed on this idea of when 22 is in his body, she's not just seeing through his eyes — she's accessing his memories as well. That was really what broke it wide open, because you see how that plays out in the moment in the third act where he sits at the piano and plays and is suddenly hit with experiencing his life through 22's eyes. That's when he has his bit of an epiphany, and that wasn't initially in there. That was what really made it integral to the story, because ultimately, no one wanted to just make a whole film about a guy getting stuck in a cat.
However, this ended up falling into the trope of black people in animated movies getting turned into animals or not being presented in black bodies. This is compounded by the fact that Fey would be voicing Joe throughout this section of Soul. Producer Dana Murray was asked about the trope, if they had concerns about it, and how they approached it.
Oh, yeah. Years. And that's why we spent time really building up a culture trust internally within the company and also brought on a lot of consultants externally and talked about these very tropes and had the hard conversations. I would say it was probably discussed almost every day for four years of how to do it right and not be disrespectful.
Powers went on to talk, in depth, about the reason why they decided to go with this story point and why he believes that they approached this trope in a different way in Soul.
You want to make sure that you're not just doing it for the sake of gags. It has to have a purpose in terms of the greater story and the lessons that you're trying to give and the story that you're trying to tell. We couldn't do the lowest common denominator version of this. For example, even when Joe is out of his body, he still has control over it when he's back on Earth. He's right there on her shoulder. You're still seeing Joe. The soul element of it, it's literally a film called Soul. The central thesis of the film is that every single one of us has a soul and you see hundreds of them. You see people in their soul forms, not just Joe, but people of all races. There's a story we're trying to tell and as long as you adhere to that story, I think, of course, it's potentially problematic, but it's potentially problematic because of the history of animation and how Black people are treated, and we purposely made sure that we treated these characters with different level of respect.
This is not to say the criticisms of Soul are not valid, and if the reasons presented above are not enough for you to forgive the trope, then that is completely fine. However, I do think it is important to hear the reasons why creatives decided to make the decisions that they did in any given work, especially when it comes to tackling problematic tropes. Again, it seems like their hearts were in the right place, but that might not matter for some, which is fine. It's good that the issue was discussed with the team, and they were aware of it going into the production of the movie.
A musician who has lost his passion for music is transported out of his body and must find his way back with the help of an infant soul learning about herself.
Soul, directed by Pete Docter and co-directed by Kemp Powers, stars Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Daveed Diggs, Phylicia Rashad, and John Ratzenberger. It was released on Disney+ on December 25th.