“Luca” Is The Trenette Al Pesto For The Soul We Need In 2021

Luca‘s greatest misfortune, I fear, will be its timing. Pixar’s critically-acclaimed, Academy Award-winning, almost universally beloved maybe masterpiece Soul was always going to be a tough act to follow, especially when audiences hold Pixar films to such a abnormally high standard that anything less than “perfect” is seen as an abject failure, and a Pixar entry’s worth is apparently based on how many tears it can force out of you. And preceding Disney Animation’s Encanto by a sizable distance into the race for Best Animated Feature at next year’s Oscars was always going to be difficult to justify, in a race where the strongest competitors enter nearer the finish line.

Luca
Luca | insider.com

Luca therefore finds itself in a situation much like last year’s Onward, and the similarities don’t end there. Luca too will suffer from a botched release that is sure to damage the film’s profitability and franchise potential – but whereas Onward enjoyed a few days in theaters before the entire world went into lockdown in March 2020, Luca is a Disney+ exclusive: and like Soul, it’s completely free for anyone with a subscription to the service. This has understandably caused some tension between Disney and Pixar, which is essentially being asked to survive on awards recognition for the time being – awards recognition that, as previously mentioned, they’re having to battle their own corporate overlords to achieve.

And unfortunately, Luca is excellent – but not in the way hardcore Pixar devotees consider the studio’s “best” films to be excellent. In other words, it’s not making enough people bawl their eyes out or reconsider their entire perception of the cosmos and their place therein, therefore it must be an unsightly blemish on the studio’s spotless reputation, which will be just fine, I promise you: Pixar survived The Good Dinosaur, and Cars 3, and Ratatouille (oops, did I say that out loud?). Instead, Luca is a summertime comfort film that is bigger at heart than in scope, with colorful landscapes more sweeping than its sweet message, likely to produce more laughter than tears – although I’m gonna be honest, you’re heartless if your eyes don’t at least well up a little bit at the final scene.

And there’d be no shame in full-on crying, because Luca is far more raw and emotional than most critics have cared to warn you. On the surface, sure, it’s just a story about two young sea monsters, named Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) and Alberto (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer), who leave the water and journey on land through the Italian Riviera, finding themselves in a cheerful seaside town named Portorosso – a town which just so happens to have a long and storied history of hunting and killing sea monsters. But the film uses its peculiar premise as an opportunity to explore some truly beautiful themes of friendship, specifically the importance of surrounding yourself with people who accept you for who you are, and who understand what isn’t within their rights to try and alter about you.

All of which is to say, the queer-coding is strong with this one. Director Enrico Casarosa has claimed that the film is necessarily set in a “pre-puberty world” and that no romance enters the equation as a result, but Luca and Alberto’s dynamic doesn’t have to be interpreted as romantic for a queer reading to be applicable. Luca’s journey on its own is already representative of many LGBTQIA+ experiences (minus the shapeshifting sea-monster part): from being found out by his overprotective, close-minded parents, who threaten to send him off with an even more conservative relative for some kind of moralistic reeducation, and running away from home as a result, to finding healing and validation with someone like Alberto, whose street-savvy makes him a kind of Mentor In Queerness archetype in this reading.

Luca
Italian Riviera | digitaltrends.com

I also appreciated that Luca‘s queer-coded sea monsters aren’t fearsome beasts. Using inhuman creatures of any kind as a stand-in for marginalized communities who are often met with accusations of being less than human is always a balancing act to some degree, but Luca is leaps and bounds above, say, Zootopia. Crucially, Luca‘s sea monsters aren’t innately dangerous (in fact, they’re downright pacifistic, based on the rural life they lead under the Mediterranean), and with their vibrant colors and wavy, luminous hair, they’re more entrancing than monstrous…well, except for Uncle Ugo (voiced by Sacha Baron-Cohen), an anglerfish/sea monster hybrid from the depths of the ocean, who doesn’t respond well to the pressure change near the surface.

But, perhaps in an effort to avoid comparisons to Finding Nemo, Luca spends significantly more time on land than underwater – and the film’s animators and artists, working mostly from their homes during the pandemic, clearly focused their efforts on enriching the tranquil environment of Portorosso, its people, and its culture. I have to admit, their efforts were not entirely successful: the Italian landscapes are beautiful, and I was left in awe of some of the most impressively realistic lighting I’ve ever seen in animation, but the setting feels like it was chosen for the lavish backdrops it could offer the simplistic story, rather than to enhance the story’s themes, and I never felt – as I did watching Coco – that the two intertwined as cohesively as they could have, or that we were allowed a glimpse of the Riviera’s cultural identity that amounted to anything more than a microcosm of Italy in general.

Also, as a Eurovision fan, I feel legally obligated to note that Pixar missed an opportunity to incorporate Italy’s Eurovision-winning band Måneskin onto this film’s soundtrack somehow. I wish I was sorry about derailing an otherwise normal film review like that, but I’m not.

But leaving that aside (if I must), the film commits few errors glaring enough to warrant the criticism it’s received from some folks who expect every Pixar film to be a paradigm-altering piece of modern art. Comfort is important too, especially what with everything going on in the world: and Luca feels like it understands that, and is offering audiences in 2021 exactly what we all need – the “Trenette al Pesto for the soul” that I referenced in the title (and no, I didn’t just hop online and pick a random Italian pasta dish: they actually eat Trenette al Pesto in the movie, and it’s a dinner scene worthy of Studio Ghibli).

Luca
Giulia, Luca, and Alberto | polygon.com

So I genuinely hope Luca finds its audience on Disney+, and that it gets at least some of the recognition it deserves when awards season rolls around. But even if it doesn’t, it left me feeling warm and cozy and deeply satisfied, like good Italian food, and I’m thankful for that.

Rating: 9/10

“Soul” Review!

After two decades in the business of making feature-length animated films that continually break new ground for the medium, Pixar has finally…tried to break new ground for representation, with Soul being the studio’s first Black-led film. And, in a pattern established by Disney Animation with their first Black-led Princess movie, The Princess And The Frog, Soul is at its very best whenever it’s illuminating the beauty and complexity of Black culture in America – and at its worst when it’s forcing an uncomfortable bodyswap (or, well, soulswap in this case) that in this case involves an awesome Black character being transplanted into a green blob/therapy cat for around 90% of the movie. That’s not to say that 90% of the movie is bad (it’s actually quite good, for several reasons), but it is deeply frustrating that we keep having to have this extremely specific conversation about the importance of allowing animated Black protagonists to remain in their own bodies.

Soul
Soul | variety.com

Soul dives headfirst into a conversation about the meaning of life, by following a middle-school band teacher named Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) as he…well, dives headfirst into an open manhole and is left in a coma, while his untethered soul desperately tries to find its way back to him. An accident leads Joe’s soul to The Great Before, a dreamy, pastel-colored landscape where young souls first have their personalities and various character quirks picked out for them before being sent off to Earth. Here, another accident leads to him being selected to mentor a rambunctious soul named 22 (voiced by Tina Fey, a casting error if ever there was one), who doesn’t want to leave The Great Before or live on Earth. Naturally, Pixar cranks up the tear-jerking dial to an 11 as Joe leads 22 on a fast-paced tour of New York City, giving them both a chance to savor the true joys of living.

What I truly love about Soul more than anything else is its unwavering focus on simple things: things we too often take for granted, but which keep us rooted in reality; things as small and seemingly insignificant as a pizza crust, a spool of thread, or even a helicopter seed. As a Tolkien fan, that message resonated deeply with me, and brought to mind Gandalf’s iconic quote from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (I know, I know, a movie quote: but a good one) – “I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.” That’s what Soul is really all about: small things and kind deeds that get us through one day, and then another, reminding us of how much wonder and beauty this world still has to offer us at every turn. A sequence in the third act illustrates this beautifully, allowing Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ haunting New Age score to narrate a vibrant montage of small-scale city life that pulls back to become a sprawling picture of the cosmos itself – and our tiny place in it.

Music is (pun most certainly intended) instrumental to Soul‘s success, and there will be h-e-double-hockeysticks to pay if Reznor and Ross aren’t rewarded at the Oscars for their work here. Their delicate New Age compositions harmonize beautifully with Jon Batiste’s jazz tunes, making the entire film as irresistible to the ears as it is to the eyes. Music, specifically soul music, is at the heart of everything Joe Gardner does throughout the story: and the film makes that clear, lavishing plenty of time on the moodily atmospheric nightclub where Gardner performs alongside in-universe jazz legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), becoming so lost in the power of his music that he’s briefly transported to the astral plane, a mystical soundscape of shifting lights.

The animation is stunning, with all the levels of hyper-realistic detail you’d expect from a live-action film set – except in The Great Before, which has a quirky, abstract visual aesthetic, and The Great Beyond, a dark area comprised entirely of deconstructed geometric platforms, like the blank space outside the boundaries of a video game. But although I’ve heard complaints that animation’s goal shouldn’t be to mimic real life but to exaggerate it, I still preferred the sections of Soul that take place in New York City to those that center the spiritual realm. Firstly, because the entire film is clearly such a passionate and genuine love letter to every aspect of city life. And secondly, because of the character designs, which are among the most diverse I’ve seen in any animated film, ever. No copy-and-paste facial features here: Soul‘s New York is accurately populated by people of every race, gender, body type, height, and weight, each with their own individual character quirks. If the extras in your movie all look detailed enough to probably carry their own story, you know you’ve done something right (in case it wasn’t clear, I am in fact demanding that Pixar commission a series of shorts focusing on various extras from this film).

Soul
Joe Gardner | nytimes.com

Of our two leads, Joe is by far the more interesting: tall, lanky, middle-aged and bespectacled, he isn’t anything like the usual Pixar protagonist, or even the usual Pixar “hot dad” character (yes, that’s a real thing). He’s also sometimes Black, which makes him pretty unique for Pixar simply by default. I say “sometimes” because, well, he’s not Black for most of the film. And the worst part isn’t even that he gets turned into a wispy, featureless, pale green orb ten minutes in. The worst part is that the film gets a chance to remedy its mistake soon afterwards – and instead doubles down on its original bad choice, placing Joe into the body of a therapy cat while inserting 22 into Joe’s body. You can claim this is much ado about nothing, because 22 is just a disembodied voice in a green orb: but Pixar made the choice to have them voiced by a white actress, and even commented on it in the script, with Joe asking 22 why they prefer the voice of a “middle-aged white lady” when they can adopt any voice they want. This is all played for laughs, but it’s not funny. Just like it wasn’t funny when Tina Fey, 22’s voice actress, wrote blackface performances into four episodes of her series 30 Rock – something for which she only finally apologized earlier this year. Pixar giving this opportunity to her is a clear sign that the studio needs to do better when casting: because there is nothing in the script that requires 22 to have a white woman’s voice…unless it is the belief that the soulswap will somehow be made funnier because of it.

And unfortunately, all this comes about at the expense of Joe, who, as previously mentioned, gets stuck in the body of a cat. If you’re not familiar with the strange phenomenon of Black animated characters being transformed into animals, this probably seems like just another joke I’m not getting. But it’s an unfunny joke that’s been driven into the ground at this point: one that relies on the notion that audiences won’t relate to a Black protagonist, but will happily laugh along if that Black protagonist is usurped from their body and placed in an animal – or really anything else but themselves. Soul, by keeping Joe’s body hanging around, seems to think it’s doing the right thing: but it’s not Joe we’re seeing onscreen – it’s Tina Fey’s white-lady voice, using Joe’s body as a mouthpiece for their own agendas, at one point even hijacking and running off with it (apparently, Joe’s body didn’t suffer a single bruise, cut, or broken limb during his coma-inducing fall) like a shoplifted costume. There are other instances worth noting, but I will leave it up to individual Black critics and audience members to decide whether and where Soul crosses the line exactly. I am nonetheless certain that many – if not all – of these issues could have been easily avoided by casting a Black voice-actress in the part.

The other major issue with the film, less severe than the ones I’ve already mentioned, is a problem with pacing: as the first two acts meander all over the place. There’s no clear point at which the action really starts, either – eventually, you just have to accept that the story is moving along ever more swiftly, and there’s not much time to slow down or take a breather before you’re swept up in it. I feel that all of this may have been intentional, to mirror the hurried pace of real life and the need to savor the few respites we get from daily hustle-and-bustle, but while that sounds like an intriguing concept, it makes for a strange viewing experience. Still could win over some Academy voters, however, if it was a conscious choice.

Soul
Joe’s soul | denofgeek.com

In the entire history of the Academy Awards, only two animated feature-length films have ever been nominated for Best Picture – one being from Disney (Beauty & The Beast), and the other from Pixar (Toy Story 3, somehow). Soul, if it hopes to be the third, may therefore benefit from the COVID-19 delay that forced it to debut free of charge on Disney+ this Christmas: a date that puts it firmly in the middle of awards season. I personally doubt the film will score a Best Picture nomination, but it’s certainly the early frontrunner for Best Animated Picture, to nobody’s surprise. Onward never stood a chance.

And speaking of Onward, the lighthearted fantasy adventure remains my favorite Pixar film of the year (and my second-favorite Pixar film of all time), believe it or not. But fear not: Soul‘s decidedly Tolkienesque messages and simple delights will ensure it a safe place in my affections, though perhaps never a spot at the top of my Pixar tier-list.

Movie Rating: 8/10

The Buzz Lightyear Prequel Is The Next Best Thing To A Pixar Theory Movie

The Pixar Theory took the internet by storm when it was first formulated: essentially, it posits that all of the Pixar movies exist in one massive, interconnected universe – a theory supported in-universe by cross-references between films and recurring characters and objects, like the Pizza Planet truck. Lightyear, one of Pixar’s newly announced upcoming feature films, could be the closest thing we get to the Pixar Theory crossover movie that some fans have been dying to see for years. Because unlike other traditional Pixar prequels and sequels, which usually just follow characters from the first film, Lightyear isn’t really the origin story of the Buzz Lightyear toy we met in Toy Story – it’s the story of the man upon whom the toy was based, a “real-life” hero in the wider Toy Story universe. And, in a particularly weird twist, Lightyear may confirm that a Disney World Resort theme park ride also exists in the Toy Story universe?

Lightyear
Lightyear | comingsoon.net

Announced at the Disney Investors Meeting on Thursday and set for a June 2022 release date, Lightyear will star the Captain America franchise’s very own Chris Evans as yet another clean-cut, All American, hometown hero: but this time, rather than fighting Nazis during World War II, he’ll be paving the way to the stars during the Space Race. Although it was very clear during the presentation, Evans clarified in a tweet that he is not playing Buzz himself, but that his character is supposed to be the basis for the popular action figure and his merchandise. In Toy Story and its sequels, Lightyear’s origins have been fleshed out (and some of his future missions were explored in the short-lived and probably non-canonical Disney Channel series, Buzz Lightyear Of Star Command), but as far as I know, there’s never been any indication prior to this that an actual human named Buzz Lightyear existed once upon a time in this universe.

Lightyear
Zurg | superheroes.fandom.com

But what we do know about Buzz (mostly thanks to Toy Story 2, my favorite film in the series, and my favorite Pixar film, period) makes me very excited to learn more in Lightyear, which will almost surely feature the return of one of the studio’s most memorable villains, the towering Lord Zurg. And not as an action figure, but as the real deal this time, complete with his spinning machine gun arm and everything. Zurg’s story never felt properly concluded in Toy Story 2, at least not to me, especially since we still don’t know if he actually was Buzz Lightyear’s father, or if that was strictly a Star Wars parody and nothing more. I want answers, Pixar.

While the film will probably match up pretty closely with the sleek, streamlined, glowing green-and-blue design aesthetic established in Toy Story 2 for Lightyear’s sci-fi video game world, one theorist noticed that the concept art for the upcoming film may also include a reference to Space Mountain, an eerie science-fiction theme park at Disney World; where visitors travel through an orange-and-black striped tunnel similar to that reflected in Lightyear’s helmet. This would actually make a lot of sense – Space Mountain was also the inspiration for the Star Command headquarters in the Buzz Lightyear Of Star Command series I referenced earlier. A Space Mountain movie is also in the works over at Disney, so this could be foreshadowing for that.

I personally can’t wait to hear from theorists like Seamus Gorman and the Carlin Brothers about how Lightyear fits into the grand scheme of the Pixar Theory, where it falls in the Pixar universe timeline, and how it relates to the other films in the rapidly expanding animated universe. And most of all, I can’t wait to see Pixar tackle another epic sci-fi adventure for the first time since Wall-E. This one, judging by the probable 50’s or 60’s setting, seems like it could have more of a pulp fiction sci-fi vibe, which is something I’m very interested to see.

So what do you think? Are you excited for Lightyear? Share your own thoughts, theories, and opinions, in the comments below!

How “Onward” Borrows From “Lord Of The Rings” – In The Best Way!

MAJOR SPOILERS FOR ONWARD…AND THE LETTER FOR THE KING…AHEAD

Onward was never really on my radar – when the trailers came out, I thought they were weak, and I never even got to see the film in theaters due to the coronavirus. But now that I have seen it, I can’t stop thinking about this strangely endearing story, which so many other critics have said is merely okay: an enjoyable, but easily forgettable, offering from a studio that has produced instant classics. That may be true for some, but I’m not ashamed to say that Onward is quickly becoming one of my favorite Pixar films.

Onward
techcrunch.com

I’m thankfully not alone in this opinion. But my opinion on the film has grown stronger and stronger with each passing day (and rewatch). And I have a few theories on why this film speaks so much to me, and why I think it has already become one of Pixar’s most underrated offerings: a story that deserves to be exalted, and is instead being bullied for its simplicity, so-so worldbuilding, and subversion of tropes – which has itself become something of a trope, though I maintain that Onward does it in the best way possible, and that’s because it borrows the inspiration (just the inspiration, mind you, everything else about it is different) for its most crucial subversive element from The Lord Of The Rings.

Now, Onward borrows a lot of stuff from J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece, it’s true. There are little details hidden all over the richly-detailed fantasy world, and, unsurprisingly, many of them harp back to the man who is described as the father of modern fantasy. Fast-food restaurants serving second breakfast, soft drinks named Mountain Doom (with “explosive caffeine!”), an image of what I believe to be Gandalf versus The Balrog in the back of Barley’s van…basically, all the usual stuff that would make me slightly biased in this film’s favor. But no, I don’t love it solely because of that. Nor do I love it solely because everyone in the film is an LGBTQ+ icon (though, if you’re interested, feel free to check out my non-existent TED talk about how Laurel and The Manticore are absolutely canon, the pawn shop owner radiates big boss lesbian energy, and Barley is a chaotic gay cinnamon roll). Sure, those things contribute to the film’s overall appeal – but what I love most about it is how it finally clarifies that Samwise Gamgee was the true hero of The Lord Of The Rings.

Lord Of The Rings Samwise
lotr.fandom.com

If you don’t already know, let me explain: in the Tolkien fandom, there has always been a war between “stans” of Frodo, and “stans” of Samwise Gamgee – a “stan” being a person who devotes themselves, wholly and unconditionally, to one specific person, fictional character, or thing. I’m not a big fan of stanning anyone or anything, simply because stans often become so passionate about whatever they’re stanning that they refuse to see its faults, and instead become toxic and hyper-aggressive when they see a threat to their idol. In the case of The Lord Of The Rings, it’s either really sad or really unsurprising that a story about unconditional love and loyalty would attract so many stans – who often divide themselves into either Frodo stans or Samwise stans. However, all you toxic Samwise stans are off the hook today, because I’m not coming for you – I’m coming for the toxic Frodo stans, and their idea of what makes a true hero.

J.R.R. Tolkien described Samwise Gamgee as the true hero of his story. Needless to say, Frodo stans have never liked this tidbit of trivia, and typically disregard it, either choosing to scream “DEATH OF THE AUTHOR!,” as loudly as possible, or snobbily remarking that “well, Tolkien didn’t write it that way”. Well, actually, he did – though, admittedly, everyone has differing opinions, and I respect that. But Onward uses the same formula for its hero and protagonist and makes it even less disputable.

Onward Barley Lightfoot
variety.com

In my opinion, what Frodo stans often overlook is that a story’s hero isn’t always its protagonist, nor vice versa. It’s rare to find, indeed, though I can actually name at least one other story this year that has done it…in a way. I say “in a way” because, while Netflix’s The Letter For The King turns the tables on its main character and reveals that one of his supporting cast, a young woman, is actually the hero of prophecy, and destined to defeat the villain, she never actually becomes the hero of the story. She’s a central plot-point, but that’s all she is: she’s just there to fight the big bad. In trying to create a surprise hero reveal, Netflix accidentally made their surprise hero the surprise protagonist of the series, while the character who was both hero and protagonist up until that point became solely the hero.

Because here’s the thing, which I’ve found is true across several different mediums: a hero doesn’t have to be the character whose name is in the title, or who gets to fight all the big sword-battles, or wield all the cool magic powers. From my experience, a story’s hero is often the overlooked beating heart of the story, the character around whom the entire story revolves without us ever noticing, usually until the very end. Sam, for instance, is the hero of The Lord Of The Rings – he represents everything the good guys are fighting for, and, without him, the story falls apart: not only because without him Frodo would have died several times before ever reaching Mordor, but because without him, The Lord Of The Rings isn’t the story of unconditional love, unbreakable friendship and unquenchable hope that we know it to be. Without him, in fact, it’s a pretty dark tale. So Sam is the true hero of that story because he is its core, the rock upon which the story is built, and Frodo is the protagonist: the character at the center of the plot – and he’s important too, because he teaches us about the importance of mercy and forgiveness, and how power corrupts. But when Frodo lies, maimed and spiritually exhausted on the slopes of Mount Doom, who is there beside him at the end of all things? Sam, that’s who. And it’s Sam’s presence there that reminds us what the story is all about: hope enduring even in darkness, and love defeating evil. For me, this is what defines a hero versus a protagonist, and shows how both can exist in one story without necessarily being the same person – a story’s true hero is the character who best personifies the themes and moral of the story, if there is one, while the protagonist is the most important character in the plot.

Onward Ian Lightfoot
decider.com

And that brings us back to Onward, and the case of Barley and Ian. For most of the film’s duration, it seems clear who is both hero and protagonist: Ian Lightfoot. He’s our POV character the entire time; he’s the one who initiates the quest when he finds out he’s the only character who can use magic; he’s the character who fights all the big fights, overcomes all the hardest obstacles, and has the big third-act battle against the fire-breathing dragon. But that doesn’t make him the hero – as it turns out, Ian is the protagonist, while his overlooked and underestimated older brother Barley Lightfoot is the story’s true hero.

It might sound unthinkable. But Onward isn’t just the story of two boys trying to meet their father – it’s a celebration of parents and parental figures in general. That’s why the father is the elusive end-goal of the movie’s plot. That’s why Laurel, the boys’ mother, follows them on their quest and has a key role in the final battle. That’s why there’s a subplot with the boys’ stepfather, whom they initially dislike but learn to accept. That’s why the big revelation at the end of the movie is that Barley Lightfoot has always been Ian’s own father figure growing up, and that Ian always did know his father, through Barley. And that’s why, in a moving act of gratitude, Ian returns the favor by giving Barley, and Barley alone, the chance to reunite with the ghost of their father in the film’s epic conclusion. That’s not entirely by choice – there’s a large dragon headed their way, and one of them has to stop it before it kills them all – but that makes it more powerful: because by that point, Ian’s character arc has concluded. He’s already figured out what and who the story is all about. But Barley still hasn’t: in a noble act of self-sacrifice, he offers to go hold off the dragon and give Ian the chance to meet their dad. But Ian stops him, telling him that now, Barley deserves what Ian always had: a chance to share his life, even for a moment, with his own father figure. Suddenly, Barley Lightfoot is the true heart, soul and hero of the story, and he best represents what the film is all about.

Now, a celebration of unconventional parental figures and older siblings isn’t anything new – the Frozen series and Lilo & Stitch are two other animated movies that give older siblings all the respect they deserve, and in fact Barley Lightfoot shares a couple characteristics with Elsa in particular (make them both gay, you cowards!) – but Pixar’s spin on the material gives it a truly unique twist. And in so doing, whether intentionally or not, they have paid homage to the father of modern fantasy.

Onward
loudwire.com

And there you have it. At this point I’ve likely angered a fair number of Frodo stans (but don’t worry, I still love all most some a few of you), and I’ve rambled on for far too long. Share your own thoughts, theories and opinions in the comments below!

Oh, and one last thing. My initial rating for Onward was too low, so allow me to do something I almost never do, and revise it:

Rating: 9.5/10