What You Lose When You Turn Into an Animal

When Joe Gardner falls several feet, and thence to his untimely death, within the first 10 minutes of Pixar’s latest film, Soul, it’s kind of shocking. That’s it? Dead as in, dead-dead? Living things are supposed to fade gently away in Pixarland. Like poor, sweet Bing Bong. Or grandmother Coco, who is very old and expires off-camera. They’re not supposed to peg out, abruptly and without grace, in the middle of the goddamn street. So much for the studio’s first Black protagonist.

Or not—there’s still a lot of movie left. And life left, in Joe. So he claws his way back to Earth, and eventually he makes it. Sort of. When he wakes up, it’s in the body of a tawny pet cat.

Classic! After all, animorphism is practically synonymous with animation, a medium historically, spiritually, and etymologically given life by the breath of anima. Disney turns real boys into donkeys; Miyazaki morphs parents into pigs; the son of Jankovic’s white mare falls somewhere between a horse and a man. Some 44,000 years ago, early humans sketched therianthropes on the walls of caves—same thing. Soul isn’t even the first of Pixar’s shape-shifty shenanigans. Or the second. In 2012’s Brave, Princess Merida’s mother and brothers spend critical, climactic moments as bears, which has its risks but is ultimately good for the whole family. Then, last May, out came Out.

A significant, illuminating eight and a half minutes, Out. Like Brave before it and Soul after—in fact, the Pixar short is the key to them both—Out turns on family dysfunction. Greg is moving to the city with his boyfriend, and his parents show up to help him pack. Normal, except for: He has never told them he’s gay. Mom knows, in her motherly way, but she can’t find the words either. It’s not until Greg body-swaps with his pet dog, via a bit of nonconsensual rainbow spirit magic, that mother and son can have a real, honest moment together. “I wish I could say: Greg, it hurts to see you move so far away, but I want you to know we’ll always be here for you,” she says to the dog, not knowing it’s actually Greg. “And I know someday, you’ll find someone who loves you as much as we do. I just hope that whoever it is, that, well, he makes you happy.” She sobs, and so do we. When Greg returns to his proper shape, he introduces everyone to the BF.

Thus Out crystallizes the anthrozoological phenomenon so fancifully exploited by animators at Pixar and beyond: When we talk to animals, their nonverbal innocence obviates the jealousies, insecurities, and proprieties that overmanage our relations with fellow humans. In Kubo and the Two Strings, Kubo can only reconnect with his parents when they look like a snow monkey and a bipedal beetle. Tiana finds love in The Princess and the Frog as, yes, a lovely frog. Same deal for Robyn in Wolfwalkers, Kenai in Brother Bear, and Odette in Swan Princess: In every case, a fragmented soul has to pass through an animal stage in order to pull itself back together. Kuzco, he of The Emperor’s New Groove, starts out mean and greedy, a stuck-up little shit. Then he wakes up as a llama! Great opportunity to sort out one’s priorities and grow, along with a tail, an actual conscience.

So what’s a guy like Joe to do when he lands on his enfelined feet in Soul? The exact thing the genre has prepared him for: patch up family bonds. Joe wasn’t a fully actualized human, BC (Before Cat). Nowhere near as dickish as Kuzco, but just—a little ungrateful, incomplete. His days as a middle school music teacher ring with the atonalities of apathetic students abusing their instruments. His mom sees no shame in a stable job, but he, who’s got the talent, if not the luck, to be a famous jazz musician, wants more. So they bicker, can’t agree. As a cat, though—name of Mittens—he’s unburdened of excess baggage. And he needs his trousers mended. Off to Mom’s he goes.