Wednesday, October 4, 2023

What you lose when you transform into an animal

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So what a guy like Joe must do when he lands on his strung feet Soul? The exact thing the genre has prepared him for: tightening family ties. Joe was not a fully actualized human, BC (Before Cat). Nowhere as silly as Kuzco, but fair – a little ungrateful, incomplete. His days as a college music teacher resonate with the tonalities of apathetic students who abuse their instruments. His mother sees no shame in a stable job, but he, who has the talent, if not the luck, to be a famous jazz musician, wants more. So they bicker, can’t agree. As a cat, however – Mittens name – he is unloaded from excess baggage. And he needs his pants fixed. He goes to mom.

His human body comes with it. You see, AD but BC, Joe, who is voiced by Jamie Foxx, finds himself floating in a cosmic place in between like a bluish white drop – souls being pre-racial. There he meets and befriends another blob, voiced by Tina Fey. She is the spark of life for the white woman who ultimately owns Joe’s earthly body, while Joe gets stuck in mittens. It’s weird and complicated, and they probably wanted to call the movie Freaky Flyday. (Instead, they opted for Soul, which rivals Outside for an embarrassing literality. And then the story of a Jewish lottery winner called Selected?)

Either way, cat-Joe tells Tina-Joe what to say to Joe’s mom, and the mom and son mend their relationship. Plus, he gets a new costume. This is all very touching, a good thing for children to see. Tina-Joe is also able to open up to other people, including a sympathetic barber, and in doing so, Cat-Joe discovers his humanity. Getting out of your skin turns out to be the best thing in the world.

Except… what kind of skin does Joe come out of? This is what the film forgets at the end. It is also what connects Soul at Outside. Outside had, in Greg, the first gay protagonist of Pixar. And Soul is of course – out of 23 films made by the studio in 25 years, more than half of which feature humans – its first on a Black. Who dies. Quickly and suddenly. Only to come back as a cat or a white drop or voiced by Tina Fey.

Such is, on the one hand, the animagic of the equal opportunity of animation, a reflection of the timeless inter-being of all creatures, large and small. Everyone can, and probably should, live a day in what constitutes an animal’s shoes, the better to rehabilitate their miraculous personality. 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 principal wife. The characters of Brother Bear are indigenous and Kuzco et al. are Inca. Kubo is Japanese, Robyn may be queer. Body transformation is almost necessary, it seems, whenever the main character is a first for the genre. To become fully human, they cannot, for a spell, be Human.

So they have to be animals instead. Something funny, like a llama or a frog. Or something scary, like a wolf or a bear. Or what is safest of all, a creature to confide in, to cry and touch, that will sit there and take it, our command – a cat, a dog. An unpleasant, cute, and non-threatening pet.

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