Designed to alienate black music culture from its gospel roots, Pixar’s Soul goes all out for secular existentialism. It’s a devious kind of bedtime-story indoctrination in which a disillusioned public-school music teacher, Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx), searches to find a new meaning of life. Joe’s adventures take him through familiar comic circumstances (School of Rock–style band instruction), family obligation (a domineering mother), and social opposition (competing for personal artistic recognition) that lull Pixar viewers into, once again, accepting the brand’s routine pattern of juvenile self-absorption.
When a street accident shifts Joe’s mortal consciousness to the other side, he repeats the pattern by which black social advancement has drifted away from the spiritual foundations of once-revered freedom and emancipation movements. He finds himself “in the zone,” which his guide #22 (voiced by Tina Fey) instructs him is “the space between the physical and the spiritual.”
Industry giant Pixar shows so little non-technological imagination that it has run out of find-your-way-back-home Yellow Brick Road plots and has recently, since 2015’s Inside Out, settled on sedentary, sleepy-time narrative: mind games.
But Joe mistakes solipsism for thought. He’s told, “This isn’t the great beyond, it’s the great before,” which allows Pixar and co-director/writers Pete Docter and Kemp Powers to veer from their subject into animated hijinks that often look like drug-induced hallucination. Soul’s visual style concentrates on abstract-art other worlds. A century after the groundbreaking Armory Show introduced the split-perspective of African-inspired European art, Pixar softens that advance into cute existential surrealism.
But that’s not Soul’s only offense. Its marketing concept (starting with a raggedy New Orleans jazz-band rendition of “When You Wish Upon a Star” for the Disney logo) shamelessly exploits African-American culture — from the misleading title to the misrepresentation of black artistic experience. Joe’s idolization of jazz performance (he longs to appear at the Half Note, a cartoon version of the New York jazz mecca the Village Vanguard) is essentially the modern worship of celebrity (represented as bossy female jazz saxophonist Dorothea Williams, voiced by Angela Bassett). He seeks fame rather than an understanding of jazz history or those struggles that Charles Mingus described in Beneath the Underdog.
Not since the Beat movement has “soul” been so easily sold to all (meaning white hipsters). Docter and Kemp know what sells in studio boardrooms, and so a cartoon about a black musician/school teacher who loses touch with his cultural and spiritual heritage lines up with progressive Hollywood worldliness. (So does inserting Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” alongside the image of mystics on a sailing ship with a peace-symbol anchor. Agnostic activists never give up.)
Joe’s self-examination (“some people just can’t let go of their own anxieties and obsessions, leaving them disconnected from life”) repeats the same politicized, nonreligious pattern that currently turns artists into hyphenates (writer-activist, singer-activist, actor-activist), indicating that artists are no longer “inspired,” in the sense of God’s inspiration, but must be committed to social, political work instead. Joe searches for his “spark” because #22 warns him, “You have no purpose.”
The point of Soul is to normalize secular thinking and secular art. The old R & B concept of “soul” was derived from musicians who applied their gospel-church backgrounds to popular music as part of a unifying black American experience, their spiritual and natural lives driven toward freedom and salvation. But Pixar pilfers this heritage and warps it into phony, overcomplicated ideation.
Unlike the historical pessimism seen in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Soul pretends to combine Kierkegaard, Kafka, and Kant — a new KKK contrived to make parents feel smart and leave children feeling hopeless. 2020 is so exhausting, who needs this carnival of nothingness?