Have you seen Soul? This is the question I’ve been constantly plagued with each morning before I could even finish my second mug of hot chocolate. An animated film surrounding a black protagonist, from the big mouse himself (technically it’s Pixar, but you get me) rightfully generated a lot of buzz. Many within my own community praised it for it’s accurate portrayal of the black experience and even crowning it as the animated equivalent of Black Panther. Soul would’ve been revolutionary; a major animated studio creating a black protagonist, allowing audiences to see their perspective is needed and wanted… had these praises been true.
While I was blown away by Pixar’s gorgeous animation and their attention to details (the barbershop scene is animation perfection), I immediately became deflated once I saw Joe transform into and stay as that blue creature for the bulk of the movie. For the majority of the movie, 22 has control over Joe’s body; that’s valuable time lost that the audience could’ve gotten understanding of the perspective of a black man and his community. To add insult to injury, he even becomes a cat before returning to his body.
To understand why Soul is truly soul crushing, let’s take a history lesson and look back at how Disney has handled animated films with characters of color in the past. Growing up, my favorite Disney movie was Mulan; the plot, the music and ultimately what she stood for had me in a trance. I can still belt out “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” with the best of them. However, if I’m honest, as a black woman I wanted someone who looked like me. So you can imagine my glee when Disney announced its first black princess in 2009: princess Tiana.
But with a little bit of pixie dust, they turned her into a frog. For the majority of her own film. If you’re saying “Stacey it’s not so bad!” let me remind you, she turned into an amphibian thirty minutes in. I thought, what a sick joke; we finally get a black princess who sings beautiful numbers such as “Almost There,” but she spends more time one screen as a slimy frog than in her own skin; the richly melanated skin that frankly we’ve been waiting to see for generations.
If you’re thinking “Stacey these are rare occurrences, this isn’t a pattern!”… well, my friends, unfortunately that’s not the case. In Pixar’s critically acclaimed Coco, Miguel turns into a skeleton twenty-eight minutes in and doesn’t return until roughly an hour later. Not to be outdone, Disney’ seriously underrated The Emperor’s New Groove showcases the Incan prince Kuzco transform into a llama after twenty-two minutes. And, he stays that way for fifty-four minutes. But, without a doubt the worst is Disney’s “iconic” Brother Bear (I’m truly drowning you in nostalgia aren’t I?) where an Inuit boy named Kenai turns into a bear after sixteen minutes. After he roams the wild in his bear form for a good fifty-three minutes, he chooses to… stay a bear forever.
Each protagonist that I mentioned represents a community who lost a chance of seeing a character who looks like them on screen and who can ultimately represent their culture on a larger platform. Yes, I enjoyed these movies, but more could’ve been done.When characters of color transform into their new forms, the film pushes away their extremely relevant original identities. Not to mention, any obstacles that may have been tied to them. For example, it was a lost opportunity not to dive deeper with Joe. We’re given bits and pieces of how he’s trying to be a musician like his deceased father, but for the most part he’s unsuccessful. To see how he’s been navigating New York before his ‘death’ would’ve added dimension; obstacles like classism, racism or poverty all could paint a more detailed picture.
Alas, there’s hope. The Oscar winning Hair Love showcases that it’s possible to produce animated films with COC (change of character) without dehumanizing them. The film focuses on the significance of hair within a black family, as a father learns to do his young daughter’s hair for the first time. Disney gave us Moana in 2016, allowing audiences of all walks of life to understand her culture without compromising her character. But, perhaps my favorite is Sony’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. If you’re shocked, then we can’t be friends.
Truly, what set Miles apart from the rest is his relatability and frankly his humanity. Yes, on the surface, the movie depicts the rise of a teen from Brooklyn taking up the mantle of Spider-Man. What this movie gets right is showcasing the life, and everything that entails, of Miles Morales, Afro-Latino teen growing up in New York. We see him struggle to fit in with his new boarding school, as well as his comfortability in his biracial household. The music he sings and the sneakers on his feet are all painting a vivid picture of the character. I know numerous kids like Miles. I grew up with them, went to school with them… I saw myself in him.
We need more stories like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Moana, and Hair Love. They’re shining examples of how to create films with characters of color without dehumanizing them, belittling their struggles or cheapening their worth. Animators and writers need to understand that films like Soul are just scratching the surface, because a great film can bridge gaps, help marginalized voices, and, ultimately, tell a great story.