Soul (2020 | United States | 107 minutes | Pete Docter)
With most of the country in various stages of lockdown and subscriptions to Disney+ a very convenient gift for faraway relatives to send their distanced loved ones, the release of Soul directly to a streaming service (at no additional charge, unlike this spring’s Mulan experiment) feels like the moneybags mouse sending a thoughtful present to cooped up families on Christmas morning. Although it won’t quite replicate the holiday tradition of using the excuse of a movie to get out of the house for an evening at the theater, a brand new Pixar movie beamed directly to your couch is a pretty nice consolation prize. I’m not sure how well it will play to younger kids, but it’s definitely a gift to older audiences.
The story of Joe Gardner, a high-school band teacher (voiced by Jamie Foxx, somehow Pixar’s first African-American lead character), who still dreams of becoming a professional jazz musician, Soul feels like an existential companion to Oscar-winning Inside Out. In that movie, director Pete Doctor used animation to visualize how roiling emotions and memories shape our personalities. Here, in a gentler, near-introspective follow-up, he explores how we even get to be people at all. Half of the film is set in a photo-realistic New York City where the best day of Joe’s life — including a successful audition for a spot in legendary jazz singer’s Dorothea Williams’s (Angela Basset, with approachable diva energy) backing band — culminates with him falling down a manhole into the great abstract people-mover in the sky to The Great Beyond. Unwilling to join the million points of light in the afterlife, he Good Places himself into the Great Before, a whimsical space of pre-humanhood, cast in relaxing cool hues, and populated by glow-wormy souls under the custody of five Cubist line drawings (all named Jerry, but voiced with encouraging warm humor by Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Wes Sudi, Fortune Feimser, Zenobia Shroff) helping them to find the “spark” that will ready them to plunge into a life on earth.
Here, in a plot to avoiding his mortal fate, Joe forms a partnership with reticent soul (brattily voiced by Tina Fey, funny as ever). She’s spent millennia being tutored by the greats of history and still hasn’t been convinced that a real life is worth the plunge (can we really blame her?); he can’t wait to pick up where he left off. Together, in various guises (human, soft focus glowing blue souls, an overweight therapy cat) they traverse multiple planes of reality, befriend psychedelic multi-dimensional shamans, dodge scary “lost souls”, and connect with Joe’s diverse community (including his stern fretting mother voiced by Phylicia Rashad) and the pleasures of being alive. Although it’s blessedly lighter on jarring whiz-bangery and overwhelming razzle-dazzle, it’s still a Pixar movie so you can count on the requisite chase scene (involving a gleefully obsessive afterlife accountant voiced by Rachel House) along with some light tear-jerking amid the studio’s hallmark visual inventiveness.
While all of the otherworldly visuals are gorgeous and well-executed, the movie’s ultimately a reminder that autumn in New York can every bit as magical as an imagined fantasy dimension, particularly with a jazz soundtrack from John Batiste (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross contribute to off-planet segments with a minimal but effective score) in the background. These characters aren’t trying to save the universe, but their quest to discovery nuances of what it means to find a purpose in life are every bit as absorbing. You’ll want to set aside some uninterrupted time over the hectic weekend to treat yourself to take it all in, and maybe even a little more time to revisit it with a rewarding second viewing.
Soul premieres on Disney+ on December 25.
Wonder Woman 1984 (2020 | United States | 150 minutes | Patty Jenkins)
In a spirit of generosity, one could describe Wonder Woman 1984 as an altogether different kind of ideal holiday movie. At two and a half hours, it’ll fill a substantial chunk of unstructured viewing time and it’s likely that someone who watches it while wandering in and out of the room between other obligations, might enjoy it more than those dialed in for the whole ride. It’s not a movie that invites intellectual curiosity or even attention to plot details, but if you catch it at the right moments you might appreciate the spectacle.
A sequel to a prequel, we pick up with DC’s immortal Amazon heroine (Gal Godot, with always-magnetic screen presence) seventy-some years since she and her beloved pilot (the ever-game Chris Pine back in a supportive sidekick role) saved humanity from World War I with slow-motion running, a lasso of truth, and a tragic suicide mission. In the ensuing decades, Diana has found herself a palatial, tastefully-appointed apartment at the Watergate and a great job as an at the Smithsonian. Her casually elegant wardrobe and home decor are wildly out of step with the rest of neon-mad Washington D.C. but she makes up for it by occasionally donning a metallic patriotic costume and showily saving children from idiot burglars at the nation’s finest shopping malls. It’s the Eighties, you see, and no stereotype is left out of the script. There’s a nerdy, klutzy, under-appreciated, highly-educated lady scientist (Kristin Wiig) who is invisible to her colleagues in the anthropology department because she’s such a flustered nerd with no self-confidence because she wears glasses and can barely walk in heels. True to the spirit of the Greed is Good Era, Pedro Pascal shows up in double-breasted suits and the glow of an executive deeply familiar with a tanning bed as single dad and television huckster who sells suckers on the American dream of getting rich quick via Black Gold (the actual name of his oil speculation company, perhaps Texas Tea would’ve been too subtle).
The paths of these fast-friend anthropologists and the power-mad executive cross when a magic old rock that grants wishes finds its way into the museum. The quest to control, contain, and exploit this ancient monkey’s paw of a crystal becomes a globe-spanning parable of power-madness, resurrected lovers, and the classic nerd-to-hot girl makeover, all of which (again) threaten the very fate of humanity. Sure, it’s an admittedly silly premise, but Marvel built an entire cinematic universe around exactly the same basic story, albeit to better effect.
Jenkins tries to make space to wrestle with ideas of love and sacrifice, the toll of that lonely longing takes on an ageless immortal, and the consequences of wish fulfillment. With these talented actors, you’d hope they could transcend the extremely flat comic book structure, but it’s a struggle that mostly feels tonally disjointed and constantly re-inventing the ground rules to get from one showy set piece to the next. As one small example, there’s an admittedly gorgeous scene in which the reunited lovers fly through a fireworks-filled sky that requires suspension of disbelief that an entire federal workforce showed up to their jobs on Independence Day, a WWI pilot could instantly operate a modern fighter jet, and that has Diana developing an entirely new super power on the spot. It’s one of many very pretty sequences, but being along for the ride requires ignoring multiple contortions of internal consistency.
If you’re here for Gal Godot dramatically running, Pedro Pascal maniacally scheming, Kristin Wiig rocking leopard print (in more ways than one) and making up for missing a chance to appear in Tom Hooper’s disastrous Cats, Robin Wright presumably getting her piece of a franchise paycheck by appearing in a fun-if-runtime-bloating Amazonian Parkour Olympics flashback to teach lil’ warrior Diana the importance of truth, and Chris Pine being more surprised by the existence of parachute pants & breakdancing than curious about the mechanics of a mysterious resurrection, then this is going to be your jam. The shallow depth of characterization and flatness of the plot was an obstacle for me, but it’s not without its pleasures. The action set pieces are reliably well staged or at least cool to look (sometimes both), the actors ham it up in what could be charitably be interpreted as an homage to a broad eighties aesthetic, and it gives us an excuse to watch Chris Pine try on a bunch of the era’s most ridiculous fashions and fanny packs in a gender inversion of the classic dressing room montage.
Maybe all of this would’ve been even more fun in a theater packed with cheering true believers, but you’d have to be a complete grinch to be too mad at Warner Bros for beaming a big, expensive, shiny bauble right into our homes for the the long holiday weekend. Given that it comes with their entire content library, the price of admission is just about right.
Wonder Woman 1984 premieres simultaneously in theaters (in places where theaters are still open) and on HBO Max on December 25.