Soul struck a chord, not just for its beautiful photorealistic animation nor its wrangling with abstract concepts of the life, purpose, and beyond, but for its genuine depiction of the Black community, centered around lead character Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx in English). And while a few things can get lost in translation in the film’s transition over to European markets, those elements remain crucial to Soul. But one choice by many European markets pertaining to the latter — Joe’s Black identity — has come under scrutiny.
In European-language dubs of Soul, The New York Times reports that Joe and other Black characters are frequently voiced by white actors, prompting a backlash in several countries like Denmark and Portugal.
The controversy first broke out in Denmark when people found that Joe is dubbed by white actor Nikolaj Lie Kaas, leading to an outcry that led Lie Kaas to issue a statement on Facebook defending his casting. “My position with regards to any job is very simple,” he wrote. “Let the man or woman who can perform the work in the best possible way get the job.”
Meanwhile, in Portugal, a petition calling for Soul to be re-dubbed with actors of color has collected more than 17,000 signatures.
The New York Times notes that white actors voice Black characters in many other European dubs of Soul, with a few exceptions like France, where Joe is voiced by Black actor (and recent Lupin standout) Omar Sy. Dubbing artists rarely gain so much attention, but Soul may have alerted people to this issue of white voice artists voicing POC characters — which Hollywood animated shows like Big Mouth, Central Park, The Simpsons, Family Guy, and BoJack Horseman have been reckoning with lately — because the film’s depiction of the Black community in New York City is so intrinsic to the story.
This is a complicated subject that not even longtime experts in the animation industry have a concrete answer for. Alex Dudok de Wit wrote about the ongoing debate over diversity in the voice acting industry in Vulture, noting that many international markets don’t have enough actors of color to cover all non-white roles. For example, mostly homogenous countries like Japan or South Korea would likely not be able to hire a Black actor to voice Joe. But while it may be a little unsurprising that a Scandinavian country like Denmark wouldn’t have a large pool of Black voice actors, it is a little unusual that Portugal couldn’t find one for a high-profile project like the latest Pixar movie.
Pixar took a chance dealing with the afterlife in Soul. While the film was one of their best, the end did not land with the dignity of such a topic.
By now, renewing a Disney Plus subscription must seem worth it. Especially after watching Pixar’s latest release, Soul. Starring Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey, it is as much a Christmas gift (being released on the 25th) as it is 2020 relief. It has already received a high amount of praise as one of Pixar’s best releases in a while.
Soul presents the afterlife according to Pixar. Particularly, the meaning of life – and death. It is a testament to the studio’s gold status to be able to pull off such a work, with both a “heady” story and the fantastic rendering. Only Pixar can pull off the hustle and bustle detail of New York City and the clean cool metaphysical of the “soulscape.” They have mastered the natural and the supernatural (even superseding the afterlife visuals of Coco).
Now, being Pixar, they could get away with pushing a heavy topic such as this in a PG film. Any other studio would fumble it or get rejected entirely. However, in their attempt to reach the audience by handling such a real topic, they did not go all the way in the film’s conclusion.
Spoilers for the film follow.
At the end of Soul, Joe Gardner is thanked for accomplishing the seemingly impossible task (over a thousand years of failed attempts) of guiding 22 to want to join life. As a reward, he is given a second chance to return to his life. It is here that the course of the movie dips. What was about to end as a great movie, fell to the rank of ‘really good.’
One aspect of Soul is comparable to Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 Swedish masterpiece The Seventh Seal, in which a Crusader knight (played by the renowned Max von Sydow) plays a game of chess against Death to save his life and the lives of his companions. Sixty-three-year-old spoiler warning incoming: at the end of the movie, though von Sydow’s character is defeated, he plays the game in such a way as to appreciate the life he had, and to save the lives of a family. Death visits von Sydow’s knight in his castle and leads him and his companions away in the dance macabre. The knight did not win.
Just like The Seventh Seal, Joe Gardner is trying to play the game of this afterlife to return to life. Here, instead of playing chess against Death, he schemes to assist 22 achieve her Earth badge only to take it from her for himself. His goal is accomplished as 22 experiences life in the body of a person. She tastes, she feels, she explores, and she questions, and ultimately gains her will to live – which is what fills the final circle in her badge.
This should have been the bigger story of Joe Gardner’s journey. He guides 22 through challenges, he serves as a companion to her discovery. He fulfills his life mission, so to speak, by awakening her ancient joy of life. This fulfillment is truly accomplished only if Joe accepts that his life has ended and that he must ascend to the Great Beyond.
Pixar made the choice to play with life and death as the plot of Soul. People are exposed to death by a variety means. Sometimes personal, sometimes at a great distance. People arbitrarily die all the time. People purposefully die all the time. Joe Gardner died by falling into the manhole. He took that extra day to enjoy the happiest night of his life. He cheated the natural order of life to take one extra day. That was his conceit. He paid for it by aiding 22 in her quest. In giving the Earth badge back to 22, he should have lost access to Earth, and thus to his life. Death is inevitable. He could have passed while playing his piano in his apartment after the club.
Even though this is a children’s film, it would have been more real, more satisfying, more honest, if they handled the topic in full. Soul uses death and the afterlife to sweeten enjoyment and appreciation of life. Of all, that is the main message given here. For children, and even for adults, it traded the potential for a real and true ending for one of false hope, where one could conceivably beat Death at a chess game and continue living. This ending robbed a meaningful and honest screen death for an empty happy ending.
It is not Joe Gardner that should be celebrated at the end of this movie. It is the discovery of 22’s desire for life.