So what’s a guy like Joe to do when he lands on his enfelined feet in Soul? The exact thing the genre has prepared him for: patch up family bonds. Joe wasn’t a fully actualized human, BC (Before Cat). Nowhere near as dickish as Kuzco, but just—a little ungrateful, incomplete. His days as a middle school music teacher ring with the atonalities of apathetic students abusing their instruments. His mom sees no shame in a stable job, but he, who’s got the talent, if not the luck, to be a famous jazz musician, wants more. So they bicker, can’t agree. As a cat, though—name of Mittens—he’s unburdened of excess baggage. And he needs his trousers mended. Off to Mom’s he goes.
His human body comes with. See, AD but BC, Joe, who’s voiced by Jamie Foxx, finds himself floating in a cosmic in-between place as a bluish-white blob—souls being pre-racial. There, he meets and befriends another blob, voiced by Tina Fey. She’s the white-lady life spark who eventually possesses Joe’s earthbound body, while Joe gets stuck in Mittens. It’s weird and complicated, and they probably wanted to call the film Freaky Flyday. (Instead they opted for Soul, which rivals Out for embarrassing literality. What’s next, the story of a Jewish lottery winner called Chosen?)
Anyway, cat-Joe tells Tina-Joe what to say to Joe’s mom, and mother and son repair their relationship. Plus, he gets a new suit. It’s all very touching, a nice thing for the kids to see. Tina-Joe is able to open up with other people too, including a friendly barber, and in the process cat-Joe discovers his humanity. Getting out of his skin turns out to be the best thing in the world.
Except … just what kind of skin is Joe getting out of? That’s what the movie, in the end, forgets. It’s also what connects Soul to Out. Out had, in Greg, Pixar’s first gay protagonist. And Soul is, of course—out of 23 films the studio has made over 25 years, more than half of which feature humans—its first about a Black person. Who dies. Quickly and suddenly. Only to return as a cat or a white blob or voiced by Tina Fey.
Such is, on the one hand, the equal-opportunity animagic of animation, a reflection of the timeless interbeingness of all creatures great and small. Everyone can, and probably should, live a day in whatever constitutes an animal’s shoes, the better to reinhabit their miraculous personhood. On the other hand, it tends to happen to a certain type of character, and it’s not just Greg and Joe. Tiana was Disney’s first Black princess, Merida Pixar’s first female lead. The characters in Brother Bear are indigenous, and Kuzco et al. are Incan. Kubo is Japanese, Robyn is possibly queer. Bodily transformation is all but required, it seems, whenever the main character is a first for the genre. To become fully human, they can’t, for a spell, be human.
So they must be animals instead. Something funny, like a llama or a frog. Or something scary, like a wolf or a bear. Or that which is safest of all, a creature to confide in, to squeal at and touch, who will sit there and take it, be ours to command—a cat, a dog. A defanged, cute, nonthreatening pet.
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