“Encanto” 1st Trailer Promises A Return To Disney Musicals

For the fourth-largest continent on the planet Earth, South America has only served as the setting of one major Disney Animation film to date – the ambiguously Incan-inspired The Emperor’s New Groove – while Europe, only the fifth-largest continent, is the backdrop to innumerable Disney fairytales, from Snow White to Frozen II. But that’s going to change later this year with the release of Encanto, a completely original musical from the mind of Tangled director Byron Howard, which will turn a spotlight on Colombian culture and folklore. And today, we got our first good look at Encanto in a short but visually stunning teaser that effortlessly nudges the film to the forefront of the race for Best Animated Feature at next year’s Oscars.

Encanto
Casa Madrigal | pastemagazine.com

Encanto continues Disney Animation’s recent trend of experimenting with their tried-and-true Disney Princess formula, as the film’s frizzy-haired, bespectacled heroine Mirabel isn’t technically a Princess by the studio’s strict standards. Instead, she hails from a highly-esteemed family of matriarchal multigenerational magic-users who live together in a marvelous house called Casa Madrigal on the edge of the Amazon Rainforest. She wears a dress, so by Maui’s definition she’s at least halfway to being a princess already, but the only animal sidekicks at Casa Madrigal seem to be devoted to another young scion of the family tree; a boy whose name is probably Carlos, if character details obtained by The DisInsider in December of last year still hold true.

And oh, the animal sidekicks! Honestly, most of the Disney Princesses should be embarrassed, parading around in the forest with their deer and chipmunks and the occasional singing crab, while Carlos is out here riding a jaguar, accompanied at all times by a tapir, a flock of macaws and toucans, a family of capybaras, and a couple of ring-tailed coatis. The sheer abundance and diversity of South American wildlife on display in Encanto is something I could ramble on about for quite some time, but I think I’ll spare you. I just hope there’s plenty of scenes in the rainforest, so we can see some tree-frogs, maybe an anaconda or two, perhaps a sloth.

But I also want to spend as much time as possible in Casa Madrigal, the sentient house. We’re so used to seeing magic – particularly in animation – as clouds of multi-colored CGI glitter and smoke, that it’s a really welcome change to visit Casa Madrigal, where the magic is almost entirely conveyed through ripples in the stonework, tiled surfaces, and floorboards, which create kaleidoscopic patterns or help the Madrigal family in small ways. Each of the Madrigals has their own individual talent, which they bring to the design and decoration of their little corner of Casa Madrigal – from one girl’s bedroom balcony being weighed down by the giant pink flowers she’s able to conjure from thin air (based on The DisInsider‘s reporting, I suspect that girl’s name is Ines), to Carlos’ being decorated with paintings of the animals with which he can communicate. I love it when a film is able to make a location feel vividly real, and Encanto definitely seems to be doing just that.

Encanto
Carlos Madrigal | joblo.com

The crux of Encanto‘s plot, however, is that our protagonist, Mirabel, is the only member of the Madrigal family who doesn’t have a magical gift – and it inspires an amusing, if slightly awkwardly written gag in the trailer where she gets a gift from the postman as a kind of “not-special special”. I can’t pass judgment on the story just yet, because that’s essentially everything we know: and to be honest, a few of the shots in the trailer don’t even look like scenes from the actual movie, but more like some kind of pre-vis animation designed to showcase character movements and mannerisms (although if they are from the movie, I suspect many of them are from some kind of introductory montage at the beginning).

We also don’t get to hear too much of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s original music for Encanto in this teaser – just bits and pieces of something that sounds reminiscent of Miranda’s work on In The Heights, his first stage musical and the source material for a recent film adaptation which Miranda produced and cameoed in. That being said, Miranda is still undeniably a big part of Encanto – for instance, I can’t imagine it’s a coincidence that Stephanie Beatriz went from having a scene-stealing role in In The Heights to being confirmed as the voice of Mirabel Madrigal – and I’m sure it won’t be long before the airwaves are deluged with whatever catchy new earworm he’s cooked up.

Encanto
Ines Madrigal | mickeyblog.com

It’s early to be making predictions about Encanto‘s quality when the film is still several months away, but I know that there’s a number of people who will love this, and I expect it to be a big hit with viewers who are excited for the mix of Colombian representation and Disney magic, fans who have been starved for Disney musicals recently, and folks who are really just here for Mirabel’s muscular older sister Lydia, whose biceps are giving Princess Namaari’s rhomboids a run for their money.

Trailer Rating: 8/10

“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

“Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” Review!

It’s appropriate that the most purely, unironically wonderful movie of this gloomy year goes hand-in-hand with “the most wonderful time of the year”, the holiday season. Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is adorned with all theĀ  embellishments of the most nostalgic classics, but this lighthearted yet surprisingly impactful steampunk Christmas epic has a potent, forward-looking magic that is entirely its own. To say it’s epic is no joke either: the story is action-packed, punctuated by dazzling musical interludes, and spanning five generations of one incredibly inventive family.

Jingle Jangle
Jingle Jangle | variety.com

That this magical, multi-generational family happens to be Black and specifically comprised mostly of Black women is not merely a more accurate and inclusive reflection of the world we live in, but is also deeply important to the film’s hopeful message. Although I will leave the matter of whether or not Jingle Jangle is good representation to Black film critics and viewers, I will say that the film’s joyful, diverse, steampunk world left me feeling so inspired and empowered that I truly hope it will do the same for Black audiences of all ages, who haven’t seen themselves represented anywhere near enough in mainstream media: neither in holiday movies, nor in steampunk – which, to be honest, has never been translated particularly well to a live-action medium until now. And whereas a majority of steampunk gets justly criticized for what often feels like an inability by the genre to break free of the same-old Euro-centric, imperialist tropes, Jingle Jangle brings with it an entirely fresh and unique “Afro-Victorian” aesthetic: something that is layered into the styling for the hair, make-up, and costume design, as well as some of the film’s most inspired musical selections – most notably a remix of Ghanaian artist Bisa Kdei’s Afrobeat hit “Asew”, which plays over a lively snowball fight.

With Grammy and Academy Award-winning singer/songwriter John Legend producing, it’s no wonder that Jingle Jangle has the lineup of standout vocal talents and songwriters that it does – including Legend himself, who contributed his talents personally to what is, unsurprisingly, the film’s best song: “Make It Work”, an epic duet between stars Forest Whitaker and Anika Noni Rose. Thanks to compelling dance choreography by The Greatest Showman‘s Ashley Wallen and David E. Talbert’s eye-catching direction, none of these musical numbers fall flat, though a few are simply too short: with Ricky Martin in particular being given very little time or material to work with, and the aforementioned Rose (the iconic voice behind Tiana, Disney’s first Black princess) only getting one opportunity to flaunt her vocal strengths – so deep into the film’s runtime I was scared she wouldn’t get to sing at all.

Jingle Jangle
Jessica Jangle | ew.com

Rose’s Jessica Jangle, however, has a fairly small role; and it’s understandable – though regrettable – that she doesn’t have more to do. The majority of the film focuses on the dynamic between her father, Jeronicus Jangle (Forest Whitaker), and her own daughter, Journey (promising newcomer Madalen Mills, whose equipped with an incredible voice). Jeronicus, once the most imaginative toy-maker and inventor in all the land, is now a cranky old man living above a pawnbroker’s shop, while Journey is, of course, the bright and sparky young soul who must help him save himself and the last of his long-lost inventions, a robot named Buddy that flies and talks and runs on belief (“believepunk” doesn’t sound quite as catchy as steampunk, though), something that Jeronicus has been sorely lacking as him and his business have fallen into disrepair over the years.

The supporting cast are all excellent, but the one standout whom I simply have to mention is Lisa Davina Phillip, who plays the mail-carrier Ms. Johnston. Fun, flirtatious, and constantly accompanied by a trio of random backup dancers who pop up out of nowhere like sidekicks in an animated movie, Johnston is one of the most delightful comedic relief characters I’ve seen in a while, and I hope that Phillip, whose filmography is still relatively small, gets much more work off this outstandingly good role. Her expressive facial acting and comedic timing even overshadow the film’s campy bad guy.

Keegan-Michael Key plays this character, a hopelessly unimaginative inventor by the name of Gustafson who is somehow under the sway of a narcissistic toy matador named Don Juan (voiced by Ricky Martin), who plots his escape from Jeronicus Jangle’s emporium early on in the film after overhearing his maker’s plan to mass-produce him for the enjoyment of children worldwide. With bland writing, unclear motivations, and a string of jokes that simply aren’t funny, Gustafson and Don Juan are the weak links in this movie. The plot misses a golden opportunity with their characters, too: if Gustafson’s plan is to become fabulously wealthy by stealing all of Jeronicus’ inventions, and Don Juan’s only fear is of being mass-produced and sold, wouldn’t that create a potential conflict of interest between the two? Especially since Gustafson doesn’t actually have any reason to obey the tin toy’s orders (since he is, you know, a toy and all)? Apparently not, since this glaringly obvious solution to all of Gustafson’s problems is taken off the table by Don Juan having apparently “forced” Gustafson to destroy the blueprint for his design offscreen…and again I ask, how can a toy force a human to do anything?

Jingle Jangle
Gustafson | denofgeek.com

Jingle Jangle‘s costume designer Michael Wilkinson can only do so much for Gustafson’s half-baked character, but his talent is on display everywhere else in the film, in the elegant array of costumes created from a clever mixture of European and African-inspired patterns and styles. Hairstylist Sharon Martin, meanwhile, was assigned the task of recreating Black Victorian hairstyles based on rare photographs from the era: her designs in particular come across as both authentic and beautiful, a tribute to the enduring power and artistry of Black hairstyling.

In a year as exhausting as this one has been, fun and lighthearted films like Jingle Jangle are especially necessary for the respite they offer from day-to-day fears and worries. This is doubly significant given how often Hollywood continues to depict Black characters onscreen only as they exist in relation to traumatic subjects such as slavery and racism, subjects that Hollywood usually exploits for easy Oscar-bait: to see Black heroes and heroines starring in a cheerful holiday musical adventure movie that exists simply to be fun is groundbreaking because of how simple it seems. But that simple magic is what I find to be Jingle Jangle’s strongest asset, and the secret ingredient in this delightful story that will keep audiences coming back for many Christmases to come.

Movie Rating: 9/10

“Dolly Parton’s Christmas On The Square” Review!

2020 needed a savior of one kind or another, and we could do a lot worse than Dolly Parton singing Biblical messages of love and charity while dressed up in rhinestone-encrusted white cowboy boots and giant, glittery, golden angel wings, that’s all I’m saying. The legendary country singer’s new Netflix holiday movie Christmas On The Square might be just a bit too blindingly bright and sparkly for some, and perhaps it’s a little too fervently energetic for others, and for a lot of people it might be much too bizarre…but maybe all you’ve got to do is open your heart to Dolly (she’s very persuasive), and let the metaphorical Christmas lamplighter light up your holiday spirit and guide you out of the dark pit of despair. I don’t know. It sounds a lot more convincing when Dolly Parton is whispering it in that sing-song voice of hers.

Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton as “Angel” | glamour.com

Christmas On The Square is an unabashedly weird movie, and the Christmas lamplighter is probably the least absurd of several dozen comically fantastical plot twists, characters, and story beats. Thankfully it won’t take you long to decide if it’s a new holiday classic for you and your family, or something better enjoyed over an alcoholic eggnog: within the first ten to fifteen minutes, you’ll have already been introduced to Angel (Dolly Parton herself, disguised as a homeless woman begging for “change”: I see what you did there, Dolly), you’ll have already witnessed the first of the film’s many frantic musical numbers, and you’ll have met the film’s villain/protagonist Regina (Christine Baranski, having the most fun out of anybody), a ruthless money-making machine whose current mission is to evict the inhabitants of her Midwestern hometown on Christmas Eve so a massive shopping mall can take its place. If that sounds suspiciously similar to the plot of A Christmas Carol, well…yes, it is essentially the same story. But perhaps not so much an adaptation of the original Charles Dickens novel as the more recent (and let’s be honest, far more enjoyable) Muppets Christmas Carol, which is also a quirky musical – although I must confess that the Muppets film has better songs than this one, and is far and away the better movie in general.

Dolly Parton
Christine Baranski and Jeanine Mason | variety.com

It’s not even that Parton’s songs for Christmas On The Square are bad, or badly-written, though they’re certainly nothing close to what she’s capable of at her best. It’s just that…she’s so rarely the one actually getting to sing them. And this isn’t some kind of “I Will Always Love You” situation, where she hands an already great song to a powerful vocalist who makes the song ten times better. Christmas On The Square has a surprisingly weak lineup of vocal talent beside Parton, Baranski, and Jenifer Lewis (who has just one song all to her own: “Queen Of Mean”, the most lyrically playful of the film’s musical numbers), and it gives most of its potentially awesome songs to Josh Segarra’s character, Pastor Christian. Segarra is a halfway-decent singer with the slightly grating rustic charm you’d expect from his goody-goody character, but his voice isn’t strong enough to carry songs like “Try”, which in particular demands to be either more powerful and show-stopping, or more quiet and intimate, than the middle-of-the-road performance we’re blessed with instead. And the film clearly had the means to go in either direction: one of the film’s most interesting singers, a choir member and supporting character played by Matthew Johnson, threatens to overshadow Segarra’s rendition of the song with his own soulful background vocals – while Dolly Parton herself gets to softly recite a single verse over the rushed end-credits. Segarra is better suited to songs like “You”, an overly earnest romantic duet between him and Mary Lane Haskell.

Earnestness is not something that typically poses a problem in holiday movies, where one expects – and indeed hopes – for the messaging to be sweet and simple. And it’s not even necessarily a problem here. But the strange thing about Christmas On The Square is how rapidly it pivots from “sweet and simple holiday musical” to “family-friendly soap-opera complete with emergency hospital visits, teen pregnancy, and complicated family-drama”, and then back again. And that’s not even factoring in the random, campy, semi-absurdist interludes focused on the Angels and their hijinks. The tonal inconsistencies feel unintentional and jarring rather than comedic, and it goes on like this until the end of the movie, which includes a truly bizarre third-act plot twist. Remember Last Christmas (which, incidentally, came out last Christmas), that George Michael-inspired musical about a woman falling in love with the ghost of the heart donor who saved her life the previous year? Yeah…think that kind of twist, but without the necessary comedic angle.

Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton | netflix.com

The movie’s secret weapon, however, is Dolly Parton – and it employs her at every opportune moment, just as a scene begins to lag or a musical number starts meandering. Some would say the movie relies on her a little too heavily at points, and sure, it probably does. But Parton’s aura is so strong and so all-encompassing (and most of the rest of the cast so boring and wooden), that it’s impossible to dismiss that as a fault. Personally, I think she could have done this whole thing as a one-woman show, and it would have been even better – and probably no weirder than it already is.

Besides, Dolly Parton poured a significant chunk of change into funding the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine while many wealthy celebrities were still under the impression we wanted to hear them incoherently singing from their palatial estates: I think she deserves to steal the spotlight in this weird, clunky, passion project that, without her, would probably be a forgettable mess. At least Christmas On The Square‘s tonal inconsistencies produced something strangely enjoyable, unlike those of a certain early-pandemic celebrity sing-along I could mention.

Movie Rating: 5.5/10