Students discuss the portrayal of people of color in Disney movies and the overall message that they took from the film
Near the end of last December, Disney Pixar released a new animated film, “Soul.” The film explores what it means to have a purpose in life. One of the main characters, a middle school band teacher Joe Gardener (voiced by Jamie Foxx), finally gets his big break as a Jazz musician, stumbles into a sewer hole on the streets of New York City and travels to the “Great Before.” It is here where Joe is tasked to help a stubborn soul, known as 22, find a way to gain interest in the human experience. Throughout the movie, the characters explore the idea of what it means to be alive.
Fourth-year English and neurobiology, physiology and behaviour double major Taylor Silva discussed the most important takeaways for her from the Disney Pixar film.
“I think the moral of the movie was to slow down and take a step back from your own life and analyze what you consider priorities,” Silva said. “We get wrapped up into things like our jobs or school and there’s this general feeling like we have to have some great purpose and that our life has value because of what we do or where we work.”
Silva further explained how “Soul” was a reminder of the simple pleasures in life.
“The daily interactions that we usually disregard are important and beautiful in their own way and we don’t appreciate them enough,” Silva said. “Instead we get wrapped up in who we need to be or who we want to become.”
As a pre-med student, Silva found the movie to be particularly reflective of her own struggles to complete the rigorous medical school requirements.
“I feel like, as someone who hopes to enter the medical field, there is a lot of pressure to be someone who is super driven and outperforms others,” Silva said. “I think ‘Soul’ emphasized the idea that your purpose is not equivalent to your profession; there is no such thing as having a single purpose, and the purpose of life is just living itself.”
Silva noted that the film had a profound message that could be applied to her life.
“Don’t get caught up in the race of life,” Silva said. “It’s okay to not always be the best or be productive 24/7. The theme of the movie kind of reminded me of the quote ‘stop and smell the roses.’”
When the film was released, Pixar faced some backlash because the main character, Joe Garderner, who is a person of color (POC), was transformed into a non-human form. This theme has been seen in other Disney movies, with main characters who are people of color, such as “The Princess and the Frog” and “Spies in Disguise.” UC Davis 2020 graduate, Tobi Ayo-Ajibola, discussed these concerns in greater detail.
“My main gripe with the movie and with other Disney movies with a Black lead is that the main character is almost immediately transformed into a non-human lifeform,” Ayo-Ajibola said. “While this movie is spun to have the main Black lead as the center of the narrative, a character voiced by Tina Fey, a white identifying comic, quickly racks up screen time, and, in my opinion, steals a lot of the spotlight.”
Ayo-Ajibola noted that although the film employed a message that spoke to the trying times everyone has been facing over the past year, the motif of transformation of POC characters was a bit disappointing.
“They settled into this habit of setting up a story [of a POC], but then settling upon their continued success found with non-POC characters,” Ayo-Ajibola said. “Don’t get me wrong, I love waiting for how quickly Disney will introduce a character of color and then turn them into an inanimate object or a non-human life form, it’s actually comedy. But I’d venture to say that because of this trope, there have been very few true Disney stories centered around the narrative of a POC.”
Fourth-year neurobiology, physiology and behavior major Alyssa Ghose noted how unlike “The Princess and the Frog” and “Spies in Disguise,” the use of non-human forms was necessary in the context of the movie plot.
“I read an article about the transformation of POC characters before I had seen the movie, so while I was watching ‘Soul,’ I had those comments in the back of my mind, but I thought this movie was a little different,” Ghose said. “I agree that transforming the characters into a frog in ‘The Princess and the Frog’ and a pigeon [in] ‘Spies in Disguise’ was unnecessary for the plot of those movies. But in ‘Soul,’ Joe changing into a blue soul creature did not feel like it was undermining his identity and who [he was] as a person, and I think it would have been difficult to have the concept executed if he stayed a human throughout the whole movie.”
Disney Pixar movies are known for plot lines that have deeper thematic meanings regarding existential issues. In the movie “Soul,” the overarching motif was about understanding the purpose of life. Ghose detailed how the movie helped her reflect on her own life.
“I kind of got the message that there is not one sole thing that gives you a purpose in life but rather a collection of your experiences, and the idea of actually making the most of your life gives it purpose,” Ghose said. “I do think there is such a thing as finding your purpose, but I think oftentimes people put a lot of pressure on themselves and think that their career is their purpose and I think that is the wrong way to go about it. I’m not sure if I can confidently say that I have found my purpose in life, but I am excited to keep living and having new memories and experiences to find out.”
COVID-19 has taken a toll on everyone, but according to Ghose the movie “Soul” delivered an important message for the audience to take away.
“Life is about the little moments, especially during times like these,” Ghose said. “I want to make the most of this year and try to not to take those little moments for granted.”
Written by: Sneha Ramachandran — firstname.lastname@example.org