Good morning or afternoon depending on where you are when you read this. I’m a little bit recharged after last week’s light work week and a four day weekend of relaxation. I made a beautiful smoked turkey for Christmas, I received some lovely gifts, I spent time with my family, honestly wonderful, just what I needed.
But it wouldn’t be a holiday season without me finding something to be irrationally angry about…
I don’t know what happened to Pixar, but at some point the team decided to switch gears from making truly interesting, meaningful movies to creating movies exclusively for people that cry when they think of anything sentimental. It started with Inside Out, a movie that stinks to high heaven in how little it means - an overwrought mess of sentimental garbage, signifiers that exist not to tell a story but to make people in the audience think of better times and project those feelings onto the screen and thus claim it was an “emotionally evocative movie.” Coco felt like it had righted this trend by actually being about something - the dangers of fame, following your dreams, and so on, and Moana was just fun [note: turns out it isn’t a pixar movie, leaving this here because I want everyone to know I’m stupid] - but…Soul may be one of the worst movies ever made, created and marketed in a manipulative and truly insipid manner.
I’m going to spoil this movie, you should not see it, forgive me.
Anyway - look at this poster. What would you say it makes you think the movie will be about?
Now, at first glance, you may think it’s about a guy playing piano with his cat, and uh, some weird blob creatures. Now, watch the trailer:
You’d watch this trailer and think it’s about a guy who absolutely loves music and jazz, who dies, goes to the afterlife, and must fight back to the real world by finding himself. You’d also genuinely be excited for an African American lead - ah, wait, Disney is pulling the bullshit it (and hollywood) loves to pull again - taking a person of color and transforming them into something else for the rest of the movie. Both Disney and Hollywood have a problem with this - they can’t seem to let people of color actually stay on the screen without doing something wacky with them - at least in Coco they slowly turn the kid into a skeleton but he spends most of the movie actually as a person of color.
Anyway, Soul is the worst offender I’ve seen in a while, and also one of the most offensive, cynical and manipulative movies I’ve ever seen.
The plot is that high school band teacher Joe Gardner is also a budding jazz pianist - he loves music, he lives for music, he loves to teach it and loves to play it, and then falls into an open manhole cover and dies.
When he wakes up, he’s in the great beyond (as he is dead) as a weird little blue blob thing, and eventually goes through a whole series of afterlife bureaucracy events that are excruciatingly boring, with some incredibly annoying voices. Long story short, Joe has to mentor another blob/soul called 22, voiced by Tina Fey, that has yet to find its “spark” (which gives a soul its “earth pass,” which is clearly where the writers just said “ah, fuck it, I don’t care”). 22 has been through many great mentors, including Lincoln, Gandhi, Jung (??), Mother Teresa, and a bunch of other people that they use to wheel out the single most trite, cliché jokes you could ask for - Jung says “Stop talking! My unconscious mind hates you!” and I screamed “fuck off!” at the screen.
Anyway, 22 doesn’t want to go to Earth, and is voiced by Tina Fey, a voice 22 chose because it’s annoying. Soul, I get it. You loathe your audience.
Anyway, they also go to a place you go when you’re in your “flow,” as in you really get into something, and that’s where they introduce lost souls clearly so that one of them can be a lost soul later, just the blandest, most exhausting foreshadowing - and Joe finds out that’s where he goes when he plays jazz, just so that you know that’s how he’s going to get back there later when he does something.
I can’t remember how but Joe inspires 22 and gets his earth pass, but something happens where 22 decides that 22 wants to go to Earth now due to being inspired.
So somehow they both go to Earth, and Tina Fey’s 22 ends up in Joe’s body, and Joe ends up…in a cat.
I won’t recount much more other than the fact that Tina Fey, as in a white woman voicing a black man, fixes a load of problems in Joe’s life because Joe never listens and is unaware of the great things he has around him, and doesn’t enjoy the simple things like leaves falling or pizza (seriously), and is too focused on jazz. Joe eventually gets to play the big jazz concert, and he feels unfulfilled at the end because he wanted to do this his whole life, and then he does it and he’s unfulfilled. The end is basically that Joe gets a second chance at life after trying to give his life back to 22, and…clearly gives up jazz? The movie just ends and doesn’t explain anything.
Anyway, the larger point of this movie is that Joe yells “I never did anything with my life” and the movie vaguely gestures to the “good things he has in his life” - a mother that chides him for doing jazz, a barbershop where a guy continually makes fun of him, and a school jazz band that sucks with one student he teaches after school. The movie literally uses slow motion White Lady In Black Guy’s Body Eating Pizza to show that Joe actually doesn’t appreciate his life. They make it very clear that you don’t get your spark by finding your purpose, you find it by…uh…finding appreciation of things?
It fucking sucks. It is a shitty movie as a pure entertainment product - it isn’t fun, it is rarely funny, it isn’t heartwarming, it has basically no characters. It’s an awful kid’s movie - hey kids, 9 and a half minutes in the character dies and is dead, and by the way, and he’s dead, and then he dies again, also don’t follow your dreams, your dreams aren’t even that important.
It’s a movie that’s marketed as about jazz - despite the frothing, flat-out deceptive marketing and PR campaign - that has barely any jazz in it, and ultimately concludes that jazz isn’t something to focus your life on. And despite people claiming it’s a celebration of black culture, it is, if anything, a cynical example of how white people have corporatized black culture into a block of marketing copy that they can wheel out as an example of how they’re not racist, for people who want to see movies and claim they’re “supporting black voices.”
It’s an exploitative use of black people to market this movie as “Pixar’s first black lead character,” only to have said black character spend most of the movie either as a blue blob, inside the body of a cat, or voiced by Tina Fucking Fey. It feels as if they made an effort to specifically not celebrate black culture - they literally spend the movie lining up a punchline that jazz isn’t that important and the lead black actor needs to appreciate the little things in life. Joe Gardner’s character is positioned as ignorant, ungrateful, obsessive, frankly unlikeable, and only through a literal white voice in his body does he make good with people at the barbershop. It’s offensive, and I have no idea how more people aren’t disgusted by it.
But this is how things work now - people want to consume products that make them appear to be something, or appear to love something, they watched Pixar’s Soul so they support black voices and black culture, they listen to the right music, they use the right hashtag - it’s all so cynical and so depressing. At its core, stripping away the offensive elements, Soul is just unremarkable - it’s a drab, cliché, empty movie, with the same manipulative musical cues every movie uses to make people who love to say they’ve cried during a movie cry, the same empty psychology about caring about those around you with no meaning attached, and people love it, because people loved to be moved versus move themselves, they love to pick up stuff and wave it to show what they believe in versus actually believing in something.
Every time I see someone “love” this movie I feel a little shitty, like maybe I missed something, maybe I’ve lost some sort of innocence that lets me enjoy stuff, but I’m also glad, perhaps, that I’m not so easily wound by hollywood’s sentimentality machine.