Pixar’s ‘Soul’ is getting rave reviews, but it left me cringing up until the very last minute

soul pixar joe gardner

  • Warning: There are massive spoilers ahead for Pixar's film, "Soul."
  • While the animation and music in the film are beautiful, the studio's first film with a Black lead film makes some questionable creative choices.
  • The strangest creative choice is that, at one point, a soul (voiced by Tina Fey), is placed in Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a Black middle school music teacher.
  • Joe's moment to shine often gets muted by that overly chatty, opinionated, and loud-mouthed soul who doesn't care about life.
  • The movie should have leaned into Joe and his family instead of using a "soul," voiced by a white actress, to help him on his journey.
  • "Soul," which skipped its original theatrical release due to the pandemic, is available now on Disney Plus.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

I wasn't sure if I liked "Soul," Pixar's latest film, up until the final scene.

This isn't easy to say. I'm a big Disney fan and went into "Soul" expecting great things. But when watching the film, it felt like the studio had taken a few steps backwards after the release of Disney's 2018 blockbuster "Black Panther."

"Soul" introduces Pixar's first Black lead in Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a high school music teacher who longs to be a jazz musician. It then follows Joe as the down-on-his-luck music teacher gets a big break at a jazz club.

As he prepares for the gig, his life is cut shockingly short. We then watch as Joe, who wants nothing more than to get his life back to live out his dream, is paired with a bratty "unborn" soul (Tina Fey) who has the ability to go to Earth, but doesn't want to take the trip because she can't see the point in living. 

In its final moments, "Soul" is set to sacrifice its Black lead so a white woman can go and live out her life on Earth. Joe decides he's fine with dying because he was able to live out a dream. As the movie's about to wrap up however, Joe's given a second chance to live life because of his good deed. Good for ol' Joe, right? 

Joe's frustration with 22 at the film's start is probably how you'll feel towards this character as well.


Despite Pixar's gorgeous animation (if you've ever been to Astoria in New York City, the film captures it perfectly down to the 7 train) and beautiful music from "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" bandleader Jon Batiste, my entire experience watching "Soul" was a roller coaster of cringe and concern because of the film's creative choices.

First, Joe is killed the moment he gets his big break within the first 10 minutes of the film. What kind of message does that send to young children watching this film who see themselves in Joe? 

Second, "Soul" steps into a dangerous trope that has become frequent in animation with leads of color. After Joe "dies," we see him turn into a green blob, which is a pattern we've seen in animation of turning Black characters into creatures. Sadly, co-director Pete Docter admitted to journalists during a virtual press conference Insider attended that he wasn't even aware of the trope until working on this film.

A still from "Soul."

It doesn't help that "Soul" nearly became a white savior movie.

When Joe winds up in another area called "the great before," he gets paired with Fey's "22." When Joe finally returns to his body 40 minutes into the film, "22" accidentally goes back to Earth, too. Joe doesn't wind up back in his body though. Instead, "22" winds up in his body. Yup, a white woman is put into a Black man's body.

Who thought it was a good idea to put a white woman in the body of a Black man? And not just any woman, but Fey, who, earlier this year, requested that episodes of her show "30 Rock" be pulled from streaming because of blackface? The same show that still has episodes on streaming featuring brownface. Hearing her "trapped" in Foxx's animated body just felt insensitive, especially after this year.

Eventually though, "22," predictably, leaves Earth so Joe can continue living. It begs another question: Why does a dying Black man have to help a white woman live? (I have a hunch this last bit came from some of Docter's personal experience after he told Insider the inspiration for "Soul" came after feeling a lack of satisfaction with the success of "Inside Out.")

Fey's "22" overtakes, what should have been, Joe's film.

And no, that's not all. There are other cringe-worthy moments.

It happens when someone goes searching for Joe on Earth. Knowing he's trying to cheat death, a character mistakes another Black man for Joe and traumatizes him. It's a common microaggresion many Black people complain about — being mistaken for another Black person simply because they're the same race.

Yes, I know Pixar brought in a brain trust and added the talented Kemp Powers ("One Night in Miami") late in the production of this film as a writer and co-director. Perhaps Pixar tapped a Black director when it got in over its head with the subject material. (Powers told press he joined the film when it was in "pretty rough form.")

That's not to say everything about "Soul" isn't great. 

This is one of the best scenes of "Soul."

There's a gorgeously animated scene that perfectly encaptures what it feels like to get lost in the zone, a feeling that artists, musicians, and writers may relate to most deeply where it feels like everything else just fades away when you're caught up in your passion.

An hour into the film, there's another beautiful moment between Joe and his mother (Phylicia Rashad) when the two share a conversation about pursuing dreams even if they may fail.

I wish the film focused and channeled more of its energy into that relationship and Joe's own life rather than his bump in with "22."

Overall, the film has a positive message about not taking your life for granted. Instead of pursuing a life-long dream, "Soul" reminds us that purpose can also be about slowing down and enjoying the simple things life has to offer, whether that's the feeling of your toes in the sand or taking a bite of your favorite pie.

Joe finds there's more to life than just pursuing his life-long dream and passion.

As of publication, "Soul" continues to sit at 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. With so many other critics enjoying this film, why wasn't I? 

Perhaps "Soul" had such positive reviews because the majority of the 33 critics who reviewed the film early from October to November listed on the review aggregator are overwhelmingly white. Shouldn't at least half of the reviews for Pixar's first film with a Black lead come from critics of color? 

Also, Pixar's first Black-led film should celebrate a Black man's experience and solely focus on his dreams and desires. Instead, Joe's life takes a backseat in order for a white woman to figure out what she wanted from life.

If that doesn't speak more about our society as a whole than I don't know what does.

Would I want to watch "Soul" with a child on Christmas morning? Only if you want to have some long conversation about death, the meaning of life, and a little bit of white privilege, afterwards.

Grade: C

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