“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 Little Mermaid” May Have Found Its Vanessa!

In times of crisis, it can be comforting to know that not everything has been canceled or delayed indefinitely. The Little Mermaid live-action remake may not be sailing into port any time soon, but it is still coming to a theater near you, and today we’ve learned that a big name may have just joined the cast of the fishy fairytale. The brilliant folks over at The DisInsider broke the news that singer/songwriter Kacey Musgraves has been circling the role of Vanessa in The Little Mermaid, and that, while she’s not locked in just yet, she has spoken with Disney executives via Zoom call to discuss the subject.

The Little Mermaid
popsugar.com

Musgraves as Vanessa is an unexpected casting choice that is sure to provoke renewed interest in the film – but then again, so was Halle Bailey as Ariel and Melissa McCarthy as Ursula: and for a moment there, so was Harry Styles as Eric until he passed on the coveted role. Like Halle Bailey, she is better known for her career in music than in movies: she is a nine-time Grammy nominee, and six-time winner, and one of the most well-known female country singers working today. But she’s also a frequent collaborator with Disney – just last year, she performed All Is Found for the closing credits of Frozen II…the song is somewhat forgettable, and I don’t understand why she wasn’t chosen to sing something more powerful like Show Yourself, but don’t get me started on the ways in which that song was robbed. Anyway, she’s established a relationship with the studio, and that’s clearly paid off.

For those who have been living under a seashell for the past thirty years, Vanessa is the human disguise of shapeshifting sorceress Ursula in The Little Mermaid, who shows up for a couple of scenes near the end of the movie to try and steal Eric away from Ariel and prevent the mermaid from scoring a true love’s kiss. Vanessa uses Ariel’s stolen singing voice to easily win over the prince (I’ve always disliked Eric, despite the fact that this technically isn’t his fault), and the two hastily arrange a marriage on the prince’s ship – a marriage which is interrupted by Ariel and her animal sidekicks when they overhear Vanessa singing about her evil plan (when will Disney villains ever learn?). Physically, the character of Vanessa matches Kacey Musgraves pretty perfectly. But there is one problem which I hope is resolved.

The Little Mermaid
Prince Eric and Vanessa | littlemermaid.fandom.com

Vanessa barely ever sings. And while Kacey Musgraves is still a win either way, I can’t help but wonder why Disney would be focused on her for the part if they don’t plan to expand the role of Vanessa and give her more songs beyond the two she has in the original animated film (and when I say she has two, I really only mean she wails beautifully on the beach when seducing Eric and then has two or three lines where she’s maybe singing, maybe just talking melodically about her evil plan). But Howard Menken, who is doing the music for The Little Mermaid, has only written four new songs that we know about – and according to The DisInsider, these consist of a solo number for Eric (he doesn’t need one, but whatever), a duet for Eric and Ariel (have I mentioned I don’t like Eric?), a song for Scuttle the seagull (who will be voiced by Awkwafina, so I’m letting this otherwise ridiculous decision slide), and a solo number for…King Triton, of all people. It’s possible Menken will write additional songs as production gets underway, but for now this is what we know. No new solo numbers for Ariel or Ursula, nothing new for Sebastian, and nothing new for the character of Vanessa. So as of right now, unless Disney simply plans to fill out Vanessa’s Song (the evil plan song: it doesn’t even have a real title, it’s that short) with more lyrics, then I don’t see the reasoning behind Kacey Musgraves’ casting, though I am still excited for her.

What do you think of this new casting for The Little Mermaid? Do you hope to see Vanessa’s role expanded and/or new songs written for her? Share your own thoughts, theories and opinions in the comments below!

“Hamilton” Film Review!

What is there to say about Hamilton that hasn’t now been said a million times before in the five years since the musical phenomenon burst onto Broadway? In those five years, Hamilton, the story of one of America’s most influential Founding Fathers, has sparked a mini revolution of passionate conversation about American history; inspired a dedicated fandom; and now, on the anniversary of America’s Declaration of Independence, made the long-awaited jump from stage to screen. There was never any doubt that this moment would be huge: Disney paid a hefty sum of $75M for the rights to the musical, and it’s already right up there with The Mandalorian as one of the most high-profile original productions that Disney+ has to offer. But the outpouring of support for the film is still incredible to see: yesterday, the day of its release, Hamilton and a slew of other hashtags related to the musical were among the top trends of Twitter, and people (like myself) flooded social media with our reactions. Amid all the talk, what is there left to say?

Hamilton
nytimes.com

Well, the fresh new format in which the musical is being presented is cause enough for conversation; though, unsurprisingly, it’s not quite as interesting a subject for many as, say, the story or world-famous soundtrack. The movie was filmed over the course of three days, with cameras placed in the audience during two live performances of the show, before moving onstage to achieve a more cinematic experience – no easy feat, I’m sure, considering how many dancers are often crowding the stage, sometimes so many that we lose sight of our main characters (one of only a few flaws in the actual staging of the musical). Overhead shots are utilized in a number of scenes, particularly for duels. And extreme close-ups bring us nearer to the actors’ facial acting than was ever possible before, even for front-row audiences: from Daveed Diggs’ repertoire of eye rolls and dramatic sneers as a quirky, flamboyantly dressed take on Thomas Jefferson; to the spit flying from King George III‘s (Jonathan Groff) mouth as he sings his breakup song to America, assuring them they’ll come back to him once they’ve had their fun.

Diggs and Groff are among a number of standouts in the supporting cast who surround Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda) on his journey from poor immigrant to cornerstone of early American government. Diggs, notably, is one of several actors with two or more roles in the musical: before he transforms wholeheartedly into the fast-rapping character of Jefferson for the rousing second act, he is no less hilariously charismatic as the Marquis de Lafayette, America’s ally from across the Atlantic. Anthony Ramos is both Hamilton’s close friend John Laurens during the Revolutionary War, and then later his son Phillip (though the latter role is probably the more interesting of the two, I personally found Ramos to be more fun in the first, and I can’t wait to see him star in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights next year: if coronavirus hadn’t moved the film from its original June 26th release date, these past few weeks would have been a showcase of Lin-Manuel’s musical talent; but then again, if coronavirus hadn’t struck, we would still have been waiting until October of next year to see the Hamilton film on the big screen).

Hamilton
standard.co.uk

In the next tier (not in terms of talent, but based on how close they are to Hamilton) we have Christopher Jackson as the indestructible, untouchable George Washington, whose role as a mentor and something of a father figure to Alexander Hamilton is pivotal to the entire story. There’s Angelica Schuyler (RenĂ©e Elise Goldsberry), one of Hamilton’s many lovers and the most dynamic, at least initially, of the three Schuyler sisters. And of course we have Leslie Odom Jr., who brings plenty of fiery passion to the somewhat underwritten character of Aaron Burr, an ambitious political candidate forever walking unwillingly in the shadows of larger-than-life figures; the man whom history will forever paint simply as the villain in Alexander Hamilton’s story. And isn’t that the whole theme of the musical? It’s a story about the power of legacy, and how powerless we are to define what that is; as George Washington notes, you have no control over “who lives, who dies, who tells your story”.

The woman who tells Alexander’s story and who, in my humble opinion as a first-time viewer, seems like the understated heroine of the piece, is Eliza Hamilton (Phillipa Soo), Alexander’s wife and later his biographer. Her personal journey, running parallel to Alexander’s lofty dreams, may seem small and inconsequential to some: but in the end, she is the woman still alive fifty years after her husband’s death, still sifting through his writings and trying to piece together a more complete picture of the man, continuing the work on the garden he never saw bear fruit, on the symphony he left unfinished. Hamilton is really a story about people like Eliza, the people who will tell our stories when we’re gone, if we’re lucky enough; whose own stories often get overlooked amid all the heated discourse about their subjects. And Lin-Manuel Miranda isn’t really a modern day Alexander Hamilton, but he is a modern day Eliza, taking back control of a narrative that rarely if ever finds a place for the marginalized, but using this opportunity to uniquely inspect the story of America’s foundation through their eyes: the eyes of immigrants, the Black community and people of color, women, radical thinkers. Through embellishing the story with song and liberally picking and choosing which parts of Hamilton’s life story to adapt, Miranda is exercising his own right as a creative and a chronicler to reinvent Hamilton once again for a more modern audience. It’s hard to tell how Eliza herself would react to all the fame and glory she and her husband now enjoy – but one would hope that, like her musical counterpart, she would gasp in joy and awe at the audience gathered to witness her husband’s legacy in motion.

Hamilton
npr.org

And then there’s Alexander himself: it’s hard to find many faults in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s performance, though it’s easy (and, in fact, important) to see the flaws in the complex character – apart from the historical fact that the real Hamilton was willing to stay silent on the issue of slavery whenever it suited him, the musical’s more liberal version of Alexander hurries through life, too concerned with his future to savor the present, too obsessed over protecting his legacy to be worried about what cost his actions have on those he loves. Alexander himself recognizes this and even sings about it on several occasions (most notably in “The World Was Wide Enough”), but once again it is Eliza who illustrates this point most brilliantly, in “Burn”, a heart-rending number sung in response to the devastating Reynolds Pamphlet scandal.

While we’re on the subject, my favorite subject, I want to highlight several of the songs which made the biggest impressions on me, at least during this viewing – first of many, I hope. Much to my surprise, neither “The Room Where It Happens” nor “Alexander Hamilton”, despite being the two most instantly recognizable songs from the show, would probably crack my top ten if I had to rank them all. “Burn”, my favorite off the entire soundtrack, draws our attention to the gaps in the narrative with its cleverly-constructed lyrics; George III has three catchy songs, each following the same melody, starting off with the sassy, self-righteous “You’ll Be Back”; Hamilton and Jefferson’s rap battles, particularly the first one, are exceptionally witty; and “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”, the final song in the musical, gives the story an appropriately epic send-off, reminding us once again that the legacies we leave behind are never truly ours and ours alone, but belong just as much to the people who survive us, who keep those legacies alive long after we’re gone.

In conclusion, I doubt I’ve managed to say anything truly new about Hamilton, but what I hope is that by lending my voice to the conversation I can help to draw further attention to this rare achievement in American theater. This show may look like a scrappy, low-budget historical reenactment, but what it lacks in spectacle it more than makes up for in passion and unquestionable cultural impact.

Movie Rating: 9/10