When it comes to end of the year lists, there will be no ranking for movies due to a lack of viewings this year caused by Covid-19 upending the original schedule. I am not certain which of those few films would make my number one, but I can say that the most likely candidate is featured in this review.
Might as well start there.
Soul is Pixar’s second of two movies released this year, the other being the largely dismissed Onward. As has been pointed out multiple times, it is a [pun intended] spiritual successor to 2015’s Inside Out, less surprising considering both share the same director, Pete Docter.
Both are about exploring metaphorical worlds that explain what makes us us. Inside Out relates to how our emotions define us in waking life. Soul is both about what we will become upon birth and the legacies we leave in the end.
Joe Gardner( Jamie Foxx) is a middle school band teacher who longs to do jazz as a musician, rather than teach it to a mostly apathetic class of Zoomers. He seems to have finally gotten the gig that will achieve his lifelong dream at middle age.
Then a freak accident born from exuberant carelessness ends his life right as it was arguably starting. Got to hand it to Pixar to have thought up as G-rated a death as possible while denoting the stark randomness that death can sometimes end up being. Rather than stay on a silky white elevator taking him to some great beyond, he ends up in the exact opposite of the stairway to maybeHeaven, the place where a person’s soul is created.
Your personality, interests, temperament and most importantly your spark are curated and eventually dispensed to the world below by a group of transcendental beings which resemble modern, abstract art, albeit pleasingly. Their design and animation is a unique accomplishment for Pixar as I haven’t quite seen something like that before. A 2D style that interacts with a 3D environment seamlessly.
Whatever can be said of Soul on its narrative and thematic merits, for better or poorer, can’t overrule how Pixar consistently astonishes in their animation mastery. Even when their films degrade to Dreamworks level quality, their 3D animation remains defiantly head of the class. They should, as they essentially invented it. Whether it is set in the “real” living world or the “before/inbetween/after-life, it is a visual beauty.
The high quality and fidelity of the animation and its ever-crafty usage is why I don’t necessarilly agree with Soul being a Pixar film that can only be appreciated by adults. That demographic will still get more out of it in how it can hit that demographic so much harder thematically. Younger audiences will have a great time just looking at the movie and appreciating the humor that falls into the visual rather than oral category.
I seriously doubt most young Disney viewers really catch or even care much about the full narrative of any given Pixar venture. The original Toy Story, which is possibly the first movie I have seen the whole way through, is not a movie that I wholly grasped at my very young age. You have to consider how limited my vocabulary was and had to infer what was happening in Woody and Buzz’s first outing than outright know. Sometimes what I could understand was in relation to what I had more or less learned from my living experience.
Soul is certainly more complex than any given Toy Story and with the exception of the aforementioned Inside Out might well be the most complex Pixar has ever been. At the same time, all the Toy Story films, save the fourth, delve into existential matters that were certainly above my mental pay grade for a good chunk of my childhood. Some of it’s subject matter might even cross over into existential horror as well, but miraculously formatted to a G-rated viewing experience.
At the very least, you can argue that it will give those same younger audiences something new to appreciate later in life. Soul succeeds in spite of its complexity and I never lost the plot or what exactly Joe’s motivations were, which boil down to: bring himself back to the living world, all in time for a band revue at a Harlem club. All the while, a stubborn soul that doesn’t wish to be alive becomes his just-annoying-enough yet still sympathetic companion.
I also have to commend the subtle brilliance of having a film about souls (metaphorical, literal, both) with the cultural framing of soul the music genre. The color scheme is appropriately blue or a variation close to it and that in turn helps relate to the blues and other complimentary styles.
I have personally wondered if the African-American musical genres so vividly displayed in Soul is a reflection on the sadness of the African-American experience over the centuries. While that music can be played in a happy, energetic fashion, it is often played in a somber, melancholy manner and can effectively suggest sadness in just the right way.
Cowboy Bebop, a Japanese animated series, conveys much of its sadder or reflective moments( which are plenty) with that flavor of somber rhythm. It doesn’t matter where you come from, that classic anime opines. The blues is here to make into sound what you’re feeling and thinking.
Soul is far from a sad film, though it is all too ready to showcase the sorrow that life or losing life prematurely will bring. It is a film that is about discovering what makes you you or harnessing it for the betterment of yourself and others. Soul left me happier and more curious about existence than not, and seeing as how that is Pixar’s modus operandi unofficially, I would qualify it as being a successful Pixar film, in an age of ups and downs for the studio.
I’d also say that it’s a Pixar movie that is not fully appreciated in one sitting. Maybe there is something I missed that makes it even greater or reaffirms how I already feel. I wouldn’t declare it right off the bat as Pixar’s newest masterpiece, as I couldn’t quite feel that was the case. I also think that it doesn’t need to be. It needs to be what it needs to be, as that is in laymen’s what Joe Gardner’s journey is all about.
Wonder Woman 84
I’ll preface by saying I am not a fan of the 2017 Wonder Woman, which for many was the DCEU’s first good film. It was certainly better than Batman v Superman, the only prior film I had bothered to watch, but that was not saying much.
I thought it was okay at best, with a few inspired moments, but ultimately the whole experience with Diana’s first solo outing felt underwhelming. Perhaps being more of a Wonder Woman or DC fan would’ve raised my opinion. Then again, even Wonder Woman 17′ defenders admitted that the handling of Ares, WW’s main antagonist, left much to be desired, along with the bombastic, CGI-saturated third act.
If anything, Wonder Woman 84′ for me could have been an opportunity to improve upon the first and build Diana up further as the DCEU’s posterchild. Shazam! 2019 had proven that Warner Bros’ ill- planned cinematic universe could combine dark material with light-hearted escapist fun and remains easily the most successful film in that universe. WW84 was not lacking in looking for influence to push the franchise forward.
WW84 is a puzzling paradox.
It held my interest, was more colorful than the original and was certainly trying to tap into the more innocent era of superhero cinema, like the original Superman films. As has been proven, it is more Richard Lester than Richard Donner but with a far superior, modern budget.
It is a confused, crowded mess that both held my attention and yet left me increasingly weary the longer it dragged on, almost to the point as if the film was holding me hostage. It is both boring yet attention holding at the same time, to speak nothing of the problematic nature of its messages or how it expresses them.
Perhaps this is due to how the Marvel Cinematic Universe has molded my thinking, but I struggle to think about how Wonder Woman 84′ connects with the rest of the DCEU as an ongoing story. As awful as BVS was and as mediocre as Justice League was, I still felt some connective tissue was there, more narratively than tonally to be sure.
The only thing here that seems to have anything significant to do with Diana’s character growth inbetween the WW1 events of WW 2017 and her modern day presence is that she learns to fly.
Something that is barely if at all apparent in her present day appearances. Most of the time she simply jumps with help from the lasso of truth in a manner seen before and after 84′. That character growth, if you can even call it that, amounts to arguably nothing despite her learning to fly still being a well done sequence in a vacuum.
The funny thing is that the events of Wonder Woman 84′ should’ve been a huge event in the DCEU’s history, considering the consequences it entails.
Maxwell Lord( played enthusiastically by Pedro Pascal) is an 80s’ businessman wannabe that discovers, through methods that are never elaborated on, the “dreamstone”, an ancient artifact that allows a person either holding it or in passing proximity to be granted whatever wish they desire. He acquires it from the Smithsonian, where Diana works, and makes it his wish to become the stone itself.
He then proceeds to visit people big and small and ask what their desires are and to grant them. In exchange for granting their wishes, he asks for something back in order to build himself into a powerful businessman and eventually desires to broadcast himself to as many people as possible to make the “give/exchange” process go global. I imagine that’s more the stone talking than Lord himself by that point.
In order to increase his influence, he goes to the White House, meets faux-Reagan who just so happens to be having a meeting on a supposedly top secret super broadcast system that can broadcast just about anywhere in the world, including Commie Russia. He convinces faux-Reagan through the wish exchange to go over to that secret broadcast station and hatch his scheme to make everyone’s dreams come horribly true.
So excusing why faux-Reagan is having this extremely important conversation in the Oval Office rather than in a more secure bunker somewhere at the same time that the world outside is going to shit due to all the wish-making chaos, what does this ultimately result in?
Well Wonder Woman gets her mojo back after being forced to give up her reborn-from-a-wish boyfriend Steve( long story for later), learns to fly and then grabs her macguffin golden armor and uses it to fly faster I guess to that broadcast station. She defeats Lord by lassoing his ankle, telling everyone around the world through him that their wishes are bad and shouldn’t be shortcuts to real accomplishments and also convinces Lord to give up his wish to save his adorable son caught up in the mayhem.
Just to give you an idea of how messed up the world gets, possibly billions of people make wishes which are obviously incompatible with each other( not to mention should’ve canceled out many more than a few) and it results in chaos that would have the Joker in stitches. Some of those wishes results in both the United States and the Soviet Union launching nuclear missiles and nearly starting World War 3. I guess that part is homage to Superman IV? The movie which has Superman fight the ultimate enemy: nuclear proliferation.
Why not? After all, the symbol on the floor at the mall that Wonder Woman fights crime in at the start has Nuclear Man’s sigil after all. Here is Nuclear Man from Superman IV in case you don’t know/forgot/repressed.
True, Wonder Woman does manage to convince everyone (somehow) to recant their wishes and avert the end of the world. But man oh man was there some considerable damage left over that renouncing those wishes couldn’t all fix. Not to mention that no one loses their memory of what happened in that insane couple of days.
Ignoring that some a-holes out there would selfishly hold on to their wishes realistically, what happened because of the dreamstone would be a huge event in human history, people of all walks of life from average joes to little kids, world leaders, terrorists, pimps, prostitutes, you name it: they all made wishes and all remembered doing so.
There is no magic wand that erases all memory or evidence that any of that crap happened, which is usually the deus ex machina to wrap up the story when dealing with wish plots, especially of this magnitude. Hell, the film at the end cuts to Christmas of that same year and no one seems remotely shaken or changed by what had happened. It’s like it never happened at all.
Wonder Woman 84 can get you caught up in the weeds of following the cause and effect( or lack thereof) of Lord and the dreamstone’s machinations, especially when trying to keep the rules together in your head. It also has you contend with truly contrived situations with multiple question marks dangling over it, such as the moment which involves Wonder Woman getting herself an invisible jet because you know, it’s in the comics.
On top of all that, you’ll have to contend with mixed messages and uncomfortable implications of some moments.
Namely, Wonder Woman accidentally bringing back to life her lover from the first movie, Steve Trevor(played also with welcome commitment by Chris Pine). Rather than just have the dreamstone recreate Steve Trevor outright, which doesn’t seem out of the realm of magical possibility, it instead has Steve take over the body of some random schmuck who lives in D.C.
Diana decides to ignore that fact and she and Steve go back to that guy’s place, eat his food, wear his clothing and sleep together in his bed, all while having, as Borat would eloquently put it, sexytime. ALL IN A INNOCENT RANDOM PERSON’S BODY.
Due to the supernatural nature of Steve’s return, some might indeed hesitate to say that Diana, Wonder Woman, our heroine, raped some innocent guy. But let me put it this way. Imagine if instead of Wonder Woman, we had another superhero that ages slowly like her, say Thor. And Thor’s lost love from the past Jane Foster was hypothetically brought back in another oblivious woman’s body. And Thor and Jane did exactly what Diana and Steve did. Would that be any more or less uncomfortable to you?
Before you say that the unnamed guy possessed by Steve would’ve loved to sleep with Wonder Woman, well first understand that consent is by design a two way street and two, would that be okay if a possessed woman was being sexed on by a hot dude?
Yeah, I was not expecting for these issues of consent and sexual assault to be topics in a Wonder Woman flick clearly aimed at empowering girls and being superhero fun for everyone. Ok, maybe I wasn’t expecting it to be an issue with Wonder Woman herself as the culprit.
Even when watching it as it happened, I found myself annoyed by the return of a cliché that I had hoped would’ve died with 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and really should’ve stayed dead with 1995’s Batman Forever: the nerdish character who is made into a self confident person through becoming a villain, often by accident.
Kristen Wiig’s Barbara Minerva who will eventually become Cheetah, WW’s archenemy in the comics, is a dorky cute bespectacled women who works with Diana at the Smithsonian. She can’t seem to make friends at work save for Diana, has self esteem issues and of course, clumsily spills a bunch of paperwork out of her briefcase like a ditz. Oh, ho ho, how droll.
Unlike the nerds who become baddies like Riddler from Batman Forever and Electro from Amazing Spider-Man 2, Wiig’s Cheetah seems most inspired possibly as tribute to Michelle Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle/ Catwoman from Batman Returns. Notice the similarity.
One of the problems with this cliché is that nobody can tell this person’s attractive with the glasses, but once she takes them off, few men can stop looking at her without them. Yes, the dreamstone is responsible for making Barbera into an eyeturner, but c’mon, Everybody Hates Chris was mocking this trope not too long ago.
At least Wiig does a great job with the very little she had. I honestly could have forgiven this a bit more had they flipped the script with having Cheetah not become a villain and surprise us by making her an ally of Diana, sort of like how Black Panther villain M’baku the Manape ends up becoming a fast friend and fellow warrior alongside T’challa in the MCU. Yes, the dreamstone corrupts those with wishes as it does to Diana in gradually sapping her powers and lifeforce. So, Cheetah being the secondary villain to Lord was by convention inevitable.
Yet another underlying issue is that Wonder Woman 84 is perhaps too tied up in trying to capture the conventions of an 80s movie to fit the era it’s set in. Not an inherently poor idea, seeing as how I by and large love 80s’ cinema, but man they could’ve picked or better handled those conventions. 80s businessman as antagonist to denote the decade’s consumerist excess? Sure, why not. Have the plot involve the Cold War in some fashion? Go for it.
Have it feature a clothing sequence with obvious intent at humor ?. OK, that might work. Have that aforementioned ditzy nerd with glasses who becomes self confident by taking her glasses off or wearing her hair differently? Ok, starting to lose me. Feature a really stereotypical depiction of middle eastern oil tycoons? Yeah, some stuff should stay in the 80s and that was likely one of them.
I could go on and on and on like the film itself does, clocking in at a 2 and a half hours. I won’t because I’m tired, want to play more Cyberpunk and/or am thinking about reviewing a DC property that’s pro girl power, great and kicks serious ass, like that Harley Quinn animated show, which I binged quite happily a few days ago.
Why waste more breath on a film that has already been chewed out by other DC fans, other Wonder Woman fans, when it is quite comforting to realize that there is DC related stuff nowadays that I can happily talk about.
So, I guess to conclude, of the two movies I wrote about here, which one would I recommend watching?
I’d take the movie that was aimed at a younger audience but treats you much more like an adult than the movie which is aimed at a slightly older overall audience but treats you less like an adult. One’s literally about inspiration, one is bereft of one.
Quite sad that, seeing as how Wonder Woman’s message should be to inspire us all to something better than we are now.