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 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).
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
SPOILERS FOR HARLEY QUINN SEASON 2 AND SHE-RA SEASON 5!
Happy Pride Month! As we begin to celebrate the history and culture of the LGBTQ+ community, I thought it would be interesting to look at what the community has accomplished already in 2020, through the mediums of TV and film. Though coronavirus has prevented many inclusive films from making it to theaters this year, there are still plenty that did get there before the world went on lockdown, and many more that have released on streaming. For this breakdown, we’ll be looking at the setbacks the LGBTQ+ community suffered early in the year, and three outstanding breakthroughs in representation that both occurred just last month which could signal big changes in the industry.
Of course, I should note that this is not, by any means, a comprehensive list of every film or TV series released this year that touches on any of these issues – this is merely a discussion of some especially significant incidents spanning the course of the past several months, which I feel present a fairly accurate depiction of the year’s many ups and downs as a whole.
In February, Marvel’s rival DC had a golden opportunity to explicitly confirm that one of their most major characters was canonically LGBTQ+ – but instead, their hyped-up zany comedy Birds Of Prey danced around the issue of sexuality, giving only eagle-eyed viewers a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nod to lead character Harley Quinn’s bisexuality in an animated sequence, while simultaneously hinting through stereotypical mannerisms that flamboyant, misogynistic villain Roman Sionis and his partner-in-crime were a gay couple. A lesbian character in the film, Renee Montoya, did play a large role and had an ex-girlfriend who also showed up, which makes Birds Of Prey something of a “one step forward, two steps backward” sort of situation.
Around the same time, the Disney+ streaming platform came under fire for a slew of reasons, most of which involved the service’s attempts to whittle down their roster of upcoming original content in a manner which many saw as discriminatory towards series’ with a focus on LGBTQ+ issues. While Disney+ didn’t do this with all of their shows (High School Musical: The Musical: The Series and Diary Of A Future President both featured openly LGBTQ+ characters), they did make the decision to move their hotly-anticipated Love, Victor (a spinoff of 20th Century Fox’s successful gay romance Love, Simon, obtained during the Disney/Fox merger) to Hulu, deeming it too mature for their own platform. One of the service’s most high-profile original series’, a sequel to the Lizzie McGuire Disney Channel series, was shut down entirely – with some sources saying that it was due to the way in which the story tackled matters of sexuality. It didn’t take long before the whole situation had raised a very interesting discussion about what is “family-friendly”, but that hasn’t saved Love, Victor from heading to Hulu, nor has it resurrected Lizzie McGuire.
In March, as the world started falling apart thanks to coronavirus, the Pixar film Onward was lost in the catastrophe, and moviegoers barely had any time to acknowledge the fantastic animated feature or its moment of LGBTQ+ representation – a moment that would have been great, had it not been leaked to the press by eager journalists prior to the film’s release and subsequently massively overhyped. In the film, a cop played by openly lesbian actress Lena Waithe briefly mentions her girlfriend in a single line of dialogue. Despite how brief the moment was, the film was still boycotted by conservative groups like One Million Moms and banned by several Middle Eastern nations.
Within a few weeks, the coronavirus had already caused major shifts in the film industry: films were being reshuffled across the board, movie theaters around the globe were shutting down and studios were hurrying to push all their upcoming or recently released content onto streaming. Unfortunately, one notable victim of all the release date rearrangements was Marvel’s The Eternals, a film already remarkable for its diverse cast. The superhero epic directed by Asian-American indie icon Chloe Zhao is set to feature the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first gay couple, and was supposed to release in November of this year. Sadly, the film has now been pushed back to February of 2021, meaning we will have to wait even longer before we can find out what Lebanese actor Haaz Sleiman was talking about when he said that there’s a gay kiss in the film that’s so emotional it made people on-set begin crying. Another Disney film, Jungle Cruise, was delayed an entire year, and will now be opening in summer, 2021: though it’s been invisible in the film’s marketing so far, Jungle Cruise is supposed to introduce Disney Studios’ first openly gay character – which is already somewhat controversial, as Disney couldn’t even be bothered to find an openly gay actor to play the role, rumors say that the character’s depiction is “hugely effete”, and test screenings apparently revealed that the character has a coming out scene in which he never actually states that he is LGBTQ+. Perhaps a delay for that movie wouldn’t be a bad thing, as it could allow them to do some much-needed reshoots.
But not everything has been all gloom and doom. The past month has introduced a wave of new representation: some of it from DC Universe, some from Netflix, some, most shockingly, from Disney+ – all of it through the form of animation.
In the first instance, DC Universe’s Harley Quinn animated series rectified Birds Of Prey‘s glaring omission by adhering to comics canon and having Harley Quinn and fellow Gotham City supervillain Poison Ivy begin a tentative relationship, which has even resulted in the two sharing a kiss. The duo now have to sort out their messy, complicated feelings for each other, and that’s great. It’s the first time the relationship, which was wildly popular in the comics, has been represented onscreen – and fans are already enjoying the canonization of the pairing, which they have labeled “Harlivy”.
However, something that sets Harley Quinn apart is that the series is exclusively for adults, meaning that its audience is necessarily limited. That’s not a problem that faces Netflix and DreamWorks, whose collaboration on the animated reboot of She-Ra And The Princesses Of Power is something that can be enjoyed by all ages – the fifth and final season premiered on the streaming service just recently, and made the hopes and dreams of the series’ many LGBTQ+ fans finally come true when lead characters Adora (a.k.a. She-Ra, Princess of Power) and Catra rekindled their friendship: which turned into a slow-burn romance, which culminated in the two confessing their love for each other in the series finale, kissing, and saving the world with the power of love. That, my friends, is representation done right – because as much as I enjoy seeing “casual” representation (such as the cop from Onward, who simply mentions her girlfriend without making it a big deal), I infinitely prefer seeing characters whose sexuality or gender identity is something that actually helps to define who they are. And with Adora and Catra, whose relationship has been at the heart of She-Ra for all five seasons, it made complete sense that their love would play a huge part in the conclusion to the story – and it did, because showrunner Noelle Stevenson is a brave, brilliant genius, who fought to make sure that she wouldn’t have to pull a Legend Of Korra on her fans and just have Adora and Catra hold hands and/or gaze platonically at each other.
Finally, we have to talk about Out. Though Disney+ is still new and working out many of its flaws, they did just recently make a big step forward – or rather, Pixar did it for them and Disney+ gets to take the credit: Out, the newest of Pixar’s animated Sparkshorts which debuted exclusively on the streaming platform, follows a gay man in an interracial relationship as he struggles to come out to his parents. Even though the story involves an unpredictable magical mishap and a lot of dog humor, it never loses sight of its true focus, which is a heartwarming message of acceptance. The short, which clocks in at around nine minutes long, is an understated milestone, becoming the first Pixar story to star a gay lead – and much to its credit, enjoyed a spot on Disney+’s top trending section, which shows that audiences are curious and eager for more content like this.
And so, as we head into Pride Month coming off of small successes like Harley Quinn, She-Ra and Out, I must ask of all my readers that you keep fighting for change in any way you can: whether that means demanding more LGBTQ+ representation from Hollywood, or protesting police brutality because black lives matter – or, preferably, by doing both. One day, we will see that change, and it will come from people like you. 2020 is a wake-up call for all of us: to fight harder. To do better.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 allmostsome 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:
This review comes at a strange time, just a little over a month since Pixar’s Onward hit theaters – long after I should already have been able to see this film in a pre-coronavirus world, and long before I should have been able to catch it on streaming. But here we are, entering a new and uncertain chapter of the film industry’s history: one in which films now leave theaters and hop into the ancillary markets much earlier than expected.
Unfortunately, Onward suffered the consequences of arriving on the very weekend that much of the world suddenly realized just how dangerous the coronavirus crisis was quickly becoming – it pulled only small crowds to the box-office, and even those became impossible to muster when theaters collectively chose to close down. As a result, I feel safe in assuming that not many people have seen Onward yet, and for those of you who haven’t, here’s my review. I will not call it “late”, for a movie review is never late – it arrives precisely when it means to.
Onward is not, strictly speaking, Pixar’s first adventure in the fantasy genre – but it is the first one with Elves, and that’s got to count for something. Set in a magic-infused world of wonder that has slowly declined with the inevitable advent of technology and industrialism, the film follows two Elves on their mighty quest to spend a single day with the ghost of their dead father, who can be brought back to life with a little help from a magical gemstone, a wizard’s staff, and an absent-minded Manticore.
Appropriately, the film revels in meta-humor, with plenty of loving shout-outs to mythical characters, creatures and locales; Easter eggs galore for the keen-eyed; and all the standard fantasy tropes we know and love. Because of the unusual circumstances allowing us to watch Onward from the comfort of our own homes, it’s tempting to watch the film with a finger poised over the pause button, trying to examine every corner of the screen for these whimsical details (though some are obvious: such as a fast-food restaurant whose giant neon signboard reads “Burger Shire: Now Serving Second Breakfast!”). I encourage you to try and refrain from doing so, at least on your first watch, so you don’t miss out on the story itself. As Martin Scorsese would advise – just try to pretend you’re in a theater.
Onward‘s multitude of callbacks to classic fantasy literature and myths get the film in trouble in more ways than one, unfortunately. Whereas other Pixar films usually involve some unique, hilarious twist, and immerse the viewer in a fully fleshed-out world rich with individuality, Onward‘s twist has been explored in dozens of books and movies before, most successfully in Terry Pratchett’s satirical Discworld novels, and its world is mostly built from borrowed material. This makes it hard to sell people on the worldbuilding premise, because the film doesn’t scream creativity like Pixar’s previous hits: Coco, Inside Out, Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., etc.
So what do you sell them on? Well, Pixar seems to think that audiences just want a good long cry, and markets its films accordingly – but Onward is really more heartwarming than sad. Don’t get me wrong: it has plenty of sad scenes, but the story, and its resolution, are more poignant and subtly bittersweet than outright soul-crushing. This is sadness done right; sadness used as an essential ingredient of a larger story, rather than for shock-value or in a formulaic fashion.
The story is carried by two extremely likable protagonists, whose contrasting and conflicting personalities balance each other out very nicely – Ian Lightfoot (voiced by, and almost certainly modeled after, Tom Holland) is the indecisive, socially awkward youngest member of the Lightfoot family, who was born after his father’s death, and thus relies on second-hand accounts of his father to build his own impression of him. Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt), the older brother, is something of a gentle giant, with relatable, but niche, interests: ancient history, magic, and mythology. The voice-work on both characters is solid, though unremarkable – which possibly benefits Pratt, as he is controversial enough in his personal life that distancing him from the characters he plays isn’t exactly a bad idea.
The small supporting cast is filled out by Julia Louis-Dreyfuss as the Lightfoots’ mother, Laurel, whose almost superhuman strength (seemingly obtained through routine aerobics sessions) feels like it should be more of a big deal than it is; The Manticore (Octavia Spencer), once an Athena-esque figure of legend who gifted heroes with magical weapons and wisdom, now a worn-down restaurant owner just trying to host karaoke night; and Lena Waithe as “Pixar’s first openly gay character”, a cop who appears in one scene and has a single line of dialogue referencing her girlfriend’s kid. It’s a small step forward for the LGBTQ+ community, but in a film where Laurel Lightfoot and The Manticore share several scenes together and have undeniable chemistry as they go on their own little lawless adventure to restore The Manticore to her former glory, it’s also a missed opportunity.
The quality of the film’s animation is nowhere near as spectacular as films like Coco or Brave – but in the world we now live in, it’s possible Onward will be nominated for an Oscar simply because so many other animated films will be pushed back to next year.
Honestly, if no better challenger arrives on the scene between now and next Oscar season, I wouldn’t mind seeing this unfortunate underdog eke out a win. Not only do I relish the thought of a sequel (yeah, yeah, I know, Pixar wants to focus on original content: well, tell them to stop coming up with original content that demands a follow-up!), but I think it would be welcome compensation for the film’s lost audience appeal and box-office returns – not to mention petty vengeance on coronavirus for all the damage and disruption it’s caused.
The second trailer for Pixar’s upcoming feature film Soul gives us our first good look at what really awaits beyond life – and more importantly to protagonist Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx): what came before.
When the middle school teacher and fame-seeking jazz musician stumbles through a manhole and is knocked unconscious, his baffled soul finds himself stuck on a slow-moving escalator towards the Great Beyond (which isn’t shown at all in this trailer: presumably whatever lies beyond will either be a major plot point of the movie, or kept completely offscreen to prevent conflict with various religious groups). But Joe’s soul doesn’t want to die, because he isn’t done living out his glorious life. So, in a desperate attempt to escape, he flings himself off the side of the escalator and falls even further into empty nothingness – until he lands in the Great Before.
Just as the Great Beyond takes us all when we die, the Great Before is where we all came from: with a few eye-catching visuals, the trailer explains how all souls live here in a vibrant lavender paradise before being assigned to various newborn humans and sent to Earth to live their lives, die, and go on to the Great Beyond. Here, Joe meets another soul, voiced by Tina Fey, whose entire goal is to never have that happen to her: she already knows everything about Earth, and has decided it’s just not the place for her. “Is all that living really worth dying for?,” she asks.
Yikes. From the looks of it, this may be one of Pixar’s heaviest films yet, and it’s going to take a lot of silly jokes (of which there are plenty) to lighten the mood in the theater. Joe’s mission to get back to his body, which currently lies in a deep coma at a hospital, is already going to be tough enough: now add on a subplot where he tries to convince Tina Fey’s soul that life is worth dying for. The end of the trailer has the two hurtling through a vortex towards Earth, which I’m hoping isn’t a spoiler. Could it really be as easy as Joe returning to his body, waking up and living out the rest of his life? Or could he end up taking that final path to the Great Beyond?
And is there a point to the strange little stinger that has two vague stick-figures counting the number of souls heading to the Great Beyond and noting that “the count is off”. Do they have a purpose? Are they heroes or villains? We have no idea.
So what did you think of this trailer for Soul? Share your own thoughts, theories and opinions in the comments below!
With Frozen 2 – Disney’s first theatrically released Disney Princess sequel (which is a lie, but we’ll get to that in a moment) – on the horizon, it seems fitting to me that somebody should take the time to go through each and every one of those Princess movies, to see which ones have withstood the test of time, and which belong somewhere in the depths of the impenetrable Disney vault. There are a few qualifiers that I think make a good Disney Princess movie – a spectacular soundtrack of great Songs; a dastardly Villain hell-bent on stirring up chaos; and, of course, a powerful Princess who takes matters into her own hands and establishes a place for herself in the world. Since quite a lot of the Disney Princesses have corresponding Princes, I’m also adding them to the categories, but the studio’s two most recent Princesses have all been single ladies, so we’ll take a moment to admire that when we get up to them. We’re going through each of the twelve movies in chronological order, so it’ll take us a while to get from Snow White’s magical Germanic forests to the sunny shores of Moana’s Polynesian island community.
(Also, I’m only ranking the Princesses officially honored as such by Disney: which means that neither Meg from Hercules nor Esmeralda from The Hunchback Of Notre Dame will be be showing up on this list. Oh yeah, and there are two other women who are notably absent, despite the fact that this post is inspired by the imminent release of their sequel movie – that’s right, Anna and Elsa aren’t official Disney Princesses, apparently: I didn’t know that when I started writing this post, but by the time I found out it was too late to scrap the idea, so that’s how I ended up in this situation).
(Oh, and by the way: SPOILERS AHEAD, for any and all Disney movies referenced below).
Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (1937):
The Princess: I have no qualms about saying this – if any Princess deserves to be bumped from the list, it’s Snow White. A quaint, outdated character without any agency in her own story, the fairest maiden in the land is constantly running from danger or welcoming it into her house – even though, with an army of magical birds and beasts, and a fiercely devoted bodyguard of seven heavily-armed men, Snow White could technically have stormed the Wicked Queen’s castle without any problems. I mean, let’s face it – the Wicked Queen’s own forces consisted of, what, a single crow and a huntsman who couldn’t even follow orders? When you think about it, Snow White had a lot working in her favor, but squandered her chance. Instead, she spends most of the movie fretting about the dwarfs’ hygiene or washing clothes. Ranking: 2/10
The Prince: with some of the early Disney Princes, the best you can say about them is that “they’re there”. With Snow White’s Prince Charming, even that would be a lie – the dude only shows up in the first and last ten minutes of the movie, and all he does is sing. Where exactly was he when his dearly beloved Snow White was hiding in the forest with seven little old men? Where was he when the Wicked Queen needed killing? This guy is the absolute worst, and Snow White could have done much better. Ranking: 1/10
The Villain:Snow White isn’t a total disaster. The Wicked Queen (fun fact: her real name is Grimhilde) is a very compelling villain with an appetite for evil and a great sense of style. Intent on being the most beautiful woman in all the land, the Queen is horrified to learn that poor little Snow White, her stepdaughter, is in fact more lovely than she. But instead of just stabbing her in her sleep or tossing her down that wishing well in the courtyard, the Queen instead relies on a third party to do her dirty work – she’s the first Disney villain to learn the hard way that evil henchmen are almost inevitably never as evil as advertised. Then again, the Queen herself does eventually get killed by an unlucky bolt of lightning, so maybe she just wasn’t that competent to begin with. Either way, her death scene provides for one of the film’s most haunting visuals, when a pair of vultures which had shadowed her footsteps hoping to feast on Snow White’s dead body instead end up eating the Queen herself. Lovely. Ranking: 4/10
The Songs: If I could give the songs in this movie a 0 rating, I would. There are only a handful of tunes in Snow White that actually have lyrics, and they are all interminably alike in their chipper, tra-la-la-lally sweetness. They are also incredibly hard to listen to, as Snow White tends to sing or whistle (or, god forbid, hum) in a high-pitched register only audible to dogs. The dwarfs sing “Hi Ho” at every available opportunity. The Prince sings one song twice – no, literally, he sings “One Song”, but he does so twice, to bookend the movie. Both times it’s an ear-splitting nightmare. Rating: 1/10
Happy Ever After? in the end, Snow White is poisoned by the Wicked Queen and sent into an everlasting slumber that lasts all of five minutes before she is woken by the Prince’s “singing” – to be polite, she had to pretend it was true love’s kiss that woke her, but I think we all know better. The Prince barely even gives her a chance to say goodbye to her friends in the forest before riding off with her into the sunset. It’s an abrupt and undeserved ending. Snow White is a landmark in animation history, and, frankly, in cinematic history. That’s something I respect and admire – but from a safe distance. Up close, from its casual misogyny to its tediously long house-cleaning sequences, this movie is a Sleeping Death all in itself.
The Princess: she may not seem like much on the surface, but Cinderella is a huge improvement from Snow White. She makes decisions on her own, she takes action when she needs to, and she doesn’t simply fall in love with the Prince because he’s a Prince. In fact, something that is often overlooked about this movie is that Cinderella never even considered the Prince – she just wanted to get out of the stuffy old chateau and attend the royal ball, and she was justifiably angry at Lady Tremaine for keeping her housebound. Considering that the villain Maleficent’s entire motivation in Sleeping Beauty was getting revenge on the royalty for not inviting her to a party, I don’t think that Cinderella was wrong for feeling slighted. Granted, it would have been nice to see her embrace her inner dark side, don a pair of horns, and wreak havoc on the land, but hey, to each their own? Rating: 4/10
The Prince: nameless and mostly voiceless, Cinderella’s prince doesn’t even get to sing one song, or any song at all, before he’s out of the picture entirely. For whatever reason, he’s not even the guy who has to go around the kingdom trying shoes on feet to see which woman is his one true love. But at the same time, he still breaks Disney tradition: until Cinderella dances into his life, the Prince is bored out of his mind by the very idea of romance, and has no intention of getting married. Rating: 2/10
The Villain: Lady Tremaine, Cinderella’s abusive, cold, calculating stepmother, is a Disney icon – though most people simply know her as the Wicked Stepmother. And wicked she is, for every action she takes in the film is either intentionally devised to suppress Cinderella’s own freedom, or does so accidentally anyway. Residing in a spacious bed beneath the inky shadows of a vast purple canopy with only her demon cat Lucifer to keep her company, Lady Tremaine is definitely #VillainGoals. And she’s cunning, almost immediately realizing that Cinderella was the Prince’s mystery date at the ball, and taking action at once to ensure that Cinderella never escapes. Rating: 4/10
The Songs: meh. Okay, so there’s “Sing, Sweet Nightingale” and what else exactly? The music in Cinderella is utterly forgettable. Regardless, it’s still a step up from Snow White. Rating: 3/10
Happy Ever After? while it’s still a low-stakes love story, Cinderella does represent a progression, no matter how small. The female protagonist actually has some agency in her story; she has personality and characteristics; and she defies the villain instead of running and hiding. It’s the first Disney Princess movie to pass the Bechdel test (and it also fails the reverse Bechdel test – i.e. no two male named characters talk about anything other than a woman), and all of its female characters, even down to the Wicked Stepsisters, have their own arcs. Cinderella is often painted as another of Disney’s antiquated damsels in distress, but she is, in fact, their first heroine, though on a very small scale (it’s worth mentioning that she does, in fact, become a damsel in distress at the very end of the movie, but is saved, not by a man, but by her animal friends). For more on the feminism of Cinderella, see here. And let’s not forget that everything Snow White and Sleeping Beauty did, Cinderella did in glass high heels. Beat that, Aurora.
Sleeping Beauty (1959):
The Princess: after the high point that was Cinderella, one would expect Disney to keep making progress, to keep forging ahead, to deliver up great Princess content for years to come. But instead, Aurora was the only Princess to come out of the studio between Cinderella‘s release in 1950 and The Little Mermaid in 1989. And Aurora isn’t what one would call a feminist icon of any kind: yes, she marries for love, and the film makes a point of establishing that she has no idea she’s falling for the man who just so happens to have been betrothed to her at birth (funny how that worked out, right?), but she also has no agency. If she were the only female character in the film, it would be a huge problem: as it is, she’s still technically the protagonist so it is still a huge problem, but thankfully there are three other female leads who basically take over the entire movie while Aurora is asleep. But the Princess herself: well, she’s not exactly role model material. Rating: 3/10
The Prince: even while Aurora is falling in love with Phillip (who just so happens to be a prince, even though he never mentions it to her), Phillip himself is falling in love with Aurora (who he thinks is a peasant girl, but of course is secretly a princess). And so Disney attempts to have their cake and eat it too: see, they married for love! But they’re both still royalty, because of course they are. It’s mixed messaging, to say the least. Phillip himself is a boring, one-dimensional character like all the early Disney princes, and he doesn’t really do anything besides wake Aurora with “true love’s kiss”, a.k.a. kissing her without consent. Rating: 3/10
The Villain: Maleficent, Mistress of Evil (not to be confused with Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil), is a hellish character with a lot of attitude, who does actually get stuff done, as opposed to her predecessors. Upon learning that she wasn’t invited to the christening of baby Aurora, Maleficent abandons whatever she was doing up until then and devotes her entire life to finding the baby and killing it. And she comes close, sending Aurora into an eternal slumber that lasts about twenty minutes, until her plans are undone by the magic of the Good Fairies. She’s a demonic force of chaos and unbalance that, honestly, is a lot of fun to watch. Rating: 5/10
The Songs:“Once Upon A Dream” is simply not an interesting song in any regard. Rating: 1/10
Happy Ever After? like all of Disney’s classic Princess films, Sleeping Beauty is tainted with sexism of all kinds: the non-consensual kiss; the arranged marriage (which is set up when Aurora is barely a day old, and Phillip is already, like, ten) at the movie’s core; and of course the three “essential” gifts that the Good Fairies give to Aurora – beauty, song, and…um, the ability to be awoken from a sleeping spell on her sixteenth birthday by her one true love, on the off-chance that something like that should ever happen. You know, just in case. On the other hand, even though Aurora is pretty much a non-entity, her guardians, the three Good Fairies, are all fully fleshed-out female characters with a lot of attitude and determination. Not only do these fairies not conform to traditional gender norms (their attempts to bake a birthday cake and sew a party dress for Aurora go…very badly), they also enter Maleficent’s castle on their own and save Prince Phillip, before basically becoming Athena-esque muses of battle, giving Phillip the magical weapons he needs to defeat Maleficent. Now, there are problems with this scenario: the three Good Fairies are so awesome, they could probably have fought Maleficent on their own without any help from a pesky mortal prince, and somehow they just decide that Phillip is Aurora’s “one true love” without ever consulting her beforehand – I know, I know, it would have been a little difficult, considering she was asleep, but come on: if Phillip’s kiss had failed to do the trick, would the Good Fairies have just rounded up all the men in the world and had them try to kiss Aurora back to life? In the live-action retelling, Maleficent, it is a mother’s kiss that awakens the sleeping princess – the three Good Fairies, who had basically been Aurora’s mothers for sixteen years, should surely have considered that “true love” doesn’t have to be romantic love, right? Apparently not.
The Little Mermaid (1989):
The Princess: Ariel deserves a lot of credit for being Disney’s first really proactive princess protagonist: as opposed to Cinderella and Aurora, who both get landed with magical godmothers they didn’t even ask for, Ariel actually goes looking for one, and finds one – who promptly manipulates her, uses her as a power-play in her war against the Sea-King, steals her voice, and then tries to run off with her boyfriend of two days. Yes, Ariel is the heroine of her own story, and she does make some very important decisions that shape the whole plot – but her willingness to make such decisions is almost always presented as a fault: instead of relying on the “wise” counsel of the men and male fish/crabs/seagulls, etc in her life, she commits the biggest crime that an outdated Disney princess can – she seeks out the help of another woman. *gasp* Ariel is quickly punished for that decision, and finds herself helpless and alone on land, her fate resting in the hands of a man who, honestly, is pretty darn callous and mean to her. And in the end, Ariel doesn’t even get to do anything to help defeat Ursula the Sea-Witch, instead having to be saved over and over again by men. Ariel is better than the Princesses who came before her, and she does significantly more in one film than all of them combined, but her greatest strengths (her bravery and headstrong attitude) are made out to be character flaws. Rating: 5/10
The Prince: Prince Eric is one of my least-favorite Disney Princes. He’s not the one-dimensional stick figure that was Prince Charming of earlier years – in contrast, he’s far too real. When we first meet him, seeing him through Ariel’s wide eyes, he’s a heartthrob who risks his own life to save his dog from drowning after a shipwreck. Ariel rescues him, pulling him to shore and singing to him – it’s lovely. But then, after Ariel spends a decent part of the movie obsessing over him, she finally reunites with him as he’s strolling along the beach looking for her – and he doesn’t recognize her. Without her beautiful singing voice, Ariel means nothing to him. He laughs at her, thinking that she must just be some random girl who got washed up by the sea (because sure, that happens all the time), and he takes her into his castle – where he definitely seems to be falling for her, until he meets another beautiful young woman who can sing (who also happens to be Ursula in disguise). And yes, everything works out in the end and Eric ends up with Ariel, but not until she gets her own voice back. God, I hate that guy. Rating: 2/10
The Villain: Ursula truly redefined what a Disney villain could be. She’s evil and nasty all right – but she’s also a total boss modeled off of an eccentric drag queen, who is all about body positivity and practicality. Up until Ariel enters her life, Ursula isn’t harming anybody: she’s just living it up in a fancy purple grotto with her pet eels and a garden of damned souls. Isn’t that what we all aspire to be? Rating: 8/10
The Songs: since Sleeping Beauty, we’ve not gotten a Disney Princess movie without at least one good song – The Little Mermaid, in fact, has two exceptional ones: “Part Of Your World”, which was nearly cut from the movie for fear that kids would find it boring, and “Poor Unfortunate Souls”, which remains Disney’s best villain song. And as for “Under The Sea”, which somehow won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, I’d say it’s mostly entertaining because of the accompanying visuals. Rating: 8/10
Happy Ever After? Disney had made significant changes to source material before they tackled this particular story: all three prior Princess films had their origins in extremely brutal fairytales involving torture, bloodshed and generally disturbing, messed-up stuff. But when it came to adapting The Little Mermaid, a story initially intended as a tragic metaphor for the author’s forbidden gay romance, in which the Mermaid, upon learning that her prince has abandoned her for another woman, commits suicide by drowning…well, needless to say, there was a lot of Disney magic at work here. And yet not enough: in the end, it’s still the story of a teenage girl running away from home to be with a man she’s never even really met, who eventually requires male aid to get her out of a dangerous situation with a queer-coded villain. Disney still had a long way to go before their first truly progressive heroine.
Beauty And The Beast (1991):
The Princess: Belle is a very complex character, because, while she’s undeniably more feminist than any Princess before her, she’s also trapped in a situation that is, without a doubt, not. There’s a lot of misconceptions about her character: some people want to believe she’s a victim of Stockholm Syndrome (i.e., a prisoner who begins to take on the characteristics of, and eventually falls in love with, their captor), and they’re not necessarily wrong for thinking that – but they should also take into account that Belle retains her individuality throughout the movie and is acutely aware of the fact that she’s a prisoner. At the same time, she does fall in love with a monster who repeatedly invades her privacy (he literally has a magic mirror that can see her anywhere she goes – ewww), violently threatens and intimidates her, and also locks her father in a cold dungeon. Even when he saves her life, it’s not immediately clear whether it’s because he cares for her, or because he’s just obsessively protective. On her own, Belle is a strong-willed, intelligent young woman with a passion for reading, educating herself, and understanding the world beyond her small-scale provincial life. It’s only when she interacts with the Beast that problems start to arise. Rating: 6/10
The Prince: the Beast is far from Disney’s most appealing character: he’s a selfish, self-absorbed brute who gets wildly aggressive at the slightest provocation and flies into a rage when Belle does…anything. A monstrous being covered in fur who happens to walk on all fours at certain points in the movie, the Beast is basically more akin to a large angry dog than an actual person. Belle falls in love with this large angry dog (raising questions I dare not try to answer), and eventually he warms up to her – most people claim that the moment he “changed” was when he rescued Belle from the wolves as she tried to flee from his castle: but considering that the previous scene had him yelling at her to get lost, I would honestly say that he only began to change as a person later on, when he woke to find Belle by his side, healing his wounds. Which means that his initial “rescue” attempt was actually just him going through another violent mood-swing and deciding he didn’t want her to leave after all. And that sort of thing makes him a villain in my book. Rating: 4/10
The Villain: the real villain of the piece, in a movie where everybody is a little more morally gray than your typical Disney Princess film, is Gaston: the hyper-masculine thug intent on marrying Belle and converting her to his outdated, backwards-thinking ideology about woman’s place in the world. Gaston usually ranks pretty low on most peoples’ lists of great Disney villains because of how evil he is – that steadfast, hateful evil is precisely what makes him so effective. In a movie that lauds itself as the first feminist Disney movie, the villain pretty much has to be toxic masculinity (fun fact, Gaston was Disney’s first male villain in a Princess film). Rating: 4/10
The Songs: nearly one of Disney’s best musical repertoires, the Beauty & The Beast soundtrack is only marred by the inclusion of Gaston’s egoistic ballad to himself (a song that demands to be fast-forwarded through). “A Tale As Old As Time”, which rightfully won an Academy Award, is a stirring, beautiful piece of music which excellently compliments the incredible visuals of the Beast’s CGI ballroom – Celine Dion’s incredible vocals were far better suited to a song of that epic quality than to the wistful lullaby she recorded for the 2017 remake of the animated classic: “How Does A Moment Last Forever”. Rating: 8/10
Happy Ever After? a complicated film, to say the least. Belle’s character is adventurous, smart, introspective and empathetic – a great role model, right? But what about what her character’s romance with the Beast says about real-life relationships? Is it acceptable to stay with a violent, uncaring man who locks you in your room and forbids contact with the outside world? Um, no. We all want to praise Belle for choosing to become the Beast’s prisoner in her father’s stead, but we can’t do that without also condemning the Beast for his downright evil actions – and to do that, we have to rethink their romance, which leads to a lot more confusion. This is one of Disney’s messiest movies, and I don’t know whether the tale as old as time should go down in history as a feminist parable – or an uncomfortable metaphor for abusive relationships.
The Princess: Jasmine is the only official Disney Princess to not be the star of her movie – but if anybody deserved to be, it’s her. Outspoken yet inconsequential, Jasmine is constantly on the verge of having something to say: she always wants to do something big and bold, she also goes right up to the edge, she’s about to take the plunge – and then the male characters come in and interrupt her moment. It’s one of the reasons why it was so liberating to finally see Jasmine let loose in this year’s Aladdin remake, which saw the princess come into her own, at least a little, with a defiant song of her own. But even in the original film, while she had little to do, she still made the most out of every minute: though I’m a little confused as to how her sheltered palace life trained her to be a superior pole-vaulter (a talent she only got to display once, sadly). Rating: 7/10
The Prince: roguish, charming and charismatic, Aladdin is the precursor to Disney’s perfect Prince, Flynn Rider (who’s still almost two decades away, so keep waiting). Yes, so he lies to Jasmine about who he is and all that – but everybody in Aladdin lies about something at some point: that’s the nature of the story. It’s all about intrigue, deception, and how things aren’t always what they seem: but Aladdin, who seems to be nothing more than a no-good street rat, turns out to have a heart of gold…and for that I couldn’t be more thankful. In my opinion, he’s Disney’s first truly lovable Prince. Rating: 8/10
The Villain: a lot of people really love Jafar. I can’t say I’m one of them. The tall, gaunt vizier certainly looks impressive in his red and black finery, wielding his hypnotic cobra-scepter, but he royally messes up every strategy he devises, and most of his plans simply don’t make any sense: for instance, he had the Sultan of Agrabah under his control for the entire movie – and yet he wasted one of his three wishes making himself Sultan of Agrabah. Why bother? And at the end of the film, the power-hungry Jafar uses his final wish to become a Genie – at which point he gets trapped in his very own lamp and flung into the desert. Rating: 5/10
The Songs: most of the songs in the original Aladdin are good because of Robin Williams’ incredible voice-acting and improvisational method. That being said, nobody does “Arabian Nights” better than Will Smith in the 2019 remake. Similarly, “A Whole New World” was elevated by Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott in the remake to whole new heights – the original is okay, but a bit shrill for my taste. And Scott’s “Speechless” has become so iconic already that it’s almost too weird for words revisiting the original animated feature and remembering that the song wasn’t in it. Rating: 7/10
Happy Ever After? it may not be the best of Disney’s animated offerings, but Aladdin has a lot going for it – an intelligent princess who speaks her mind (or at least tries to); a prince who set the groundwork for an even better one to come; and a bunch of great songs. It’s got problems, of course: “slave Jasmine” reads as a desperate attempt to exoticize the Middle Eastern princess, and there are a handful of questionable lyrics that had to be revised when the film was remade this year. But for the most part, it’s a fun, charmingly comedic movie with a lot of heart, and irresistibly wonderful performances.
The Princess: everything that Pocahontas does, she does for her people and the betterment of her society: a brave young woman looking for purpose and direction in an increasingly violent world, Pocahontas’s journey is extremely significant in her own era – both as an inspiration (she is, in my opinion, Disney’s first truly feminist heroine), and as a cautionary tale about the dangers of rewriting history. Unfortunately, the real-life Pocahontas wasn’t quite the spirited leader that the films paints her to be – in reality, she was a child kidnapped from her tribe and abused, forced into marriage, converted to Christianity and paraded around England as a “noble savage”. So while it’s perfectly fine to feel empowered by the Disney Pocahontas’ story, it also doesn’t hurt to learn about the real Pocahontas’ tragic life, and the violent history of European settlers in North America that Disney chose to bypass of even ignore in the film. Rating: 8/10
The Prince: John Smith is hard to like, largely because anyone aware of the historical narrative behind the film will know that the real-life Smith was anything but the blond-haired, blue-eyed “man’s man” that the film chooses to make him – Smith was, in actuality, far older than Pocahontas, and was just as nasty as the Disney film’s villain, Governor Ratcliffe. The opening of the film tries to show some of that, by having Smith laughing about how he’s going to kill a bunch of “savages” in the New World, but then attempts to redeem him by having him fall in love with the heroine and go on a psychedelic journey through an animated wilderness during the “Colors Of The Wind” sequence – yeah, last time I checked, all the beautiful animation in the world still isn’t enough time to turn racist colonizers into decent people. Rating: 3/10
The Villain: historical accounts vary, but one thing is clear: the real Governor John Ratcliffe was nothing like the greedy, vainglorious buffoon that Pocahontas and her allies face down in Disney’s reinterpretation of the story. The real Ratcliffe traded peacefully with the Native Americans he encountered, until his abrupt death at their hands: in an ambush supposedly laid by the Powhatan tribe, Ratcliffe was captured and burned at the stake. In the Disney movie, Ratcliffe is instead exposed for the fraudulent idiot that he is and sent home to England in chains. A perfect ending for a perfectly despicable villain. Rating: 6/10
The Songs: I have no idea whether this is an unpopular opinion, but Pocahontas has the best songs of any Disney movie. “Steady As The Beating Drum”? Beautiful. “Just Around The Riverbend”? Emotional. “Listen With Your Heart”? Magical. “Colors Of The Wind”? Inspiring. “Savages”? Terrifying. “If I Never Knew You”? Quite possibly the most romantic song from any Disney movie ever – and it only showed up in the end-credits! Rating: 9/10
Happy Ever After? the story of Pocahontas was horribly butchered to work in the family-friendly Disney narrative, and it’s no wonder that a lot of people try to forget about it, or pretend it never existed (have you noticed that it’s, like, the only Disney classic not getting a remake? Yeah, there’s a reason for that). It’s a shame, because Disney could have chosen any number of actual Native American folktales and legends to adapt that would not have involved the brutality and atrocities committed by white men in the Americas. A character like Disney’s Pocahontas, in a more historically accurate and responsible movie, could have been a revelation. But instead this is one movie that most people will always condemn for its undisputed dishonesty.
The Princess: it’s no secret that Mulan is my favorite Disney Animation film of all time, and in no small part because of Mulan herself: brilliantly voiced by Ming-Na Wen and brought to life with incredible humanity, the character is an icon. A selfless, introverted woman who decides to takes her father’s place during war-time by disguising herself as a man and joining the army, Mulan ends up becoming China’s greatest warrior, defeating the invading Hun army not once, but twice, and winning the respect of her family and country. She’s the only Disney Princess who’s not technically a Princess – but she was given the title because her bravery and acts of courage were just that awe-inspiring. She’s consistently ranked near the top (or at the top) of Most Feminist Disney Princess lists. And did I mention she saved all of China? Rating: 10/10
The Prince: not only was Mulan not a Princess, but her love interest, Captain Shang, was most assuredly not a Prince. A practical, cynical, solemn guy who has the honor of being Disney’s first Prince to go fully shirtless, Shang established a close relationship with Mulan before he even knew she was a woman in disguise: so close, in fact, that some believe Shang was subtly coded as bisexual. And when Shang does find out, well…okay, well, first he sulks, and gets really angry about it, and he storms off like the drama queen he is – but then, when Mulan comes back to tell him that the Huns have invaded the capital, he finally loosens up, sees the error of his ways, and helps her defeat Shan Yu. Rating: 7/10
The Villain: speaking of Shan Yu, he is absolutely the weakest part of this incredible movie. I don’t know if Mulan (which is, all things considered, Disney’s most mature Princess film) could have sustained a more over-the-top, comical villain like an Ursula or a Hades, but it could probably have used something a bit more exciting than this creepy killing-machine. Shan Yu gets down to business in the very first scene of the movie, and doesn’t relent until he gets blown to pieces by fireworks in the finale: he doesn’t take any joy in his evil (though he smirks so much you might get the wrong impression), and he’s not got a charismatic bone in his gigantic body, but he’s definitely terrifying. And in the tradition of Disney villains having bird sidekicks, Shan Yu has a particularly menacing hawk that follows him around – before getting deep-fried in one of the most lovely bits of comeuppance I’ve ever seen. Rating: 5/10
The Songs: yet another virtually perfect soundtrack from Disney. If I had to point out one problem, it’s that the reprise of “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You” at the end of the film is far too brief, and that the version of “Reflection” used in the movie itself doesn’t quite match the splendor of the end-credits version performed by Christina Aguilera. Rating: 8/10
Happy Ever After? this is my favorite Disney movie for so many reasons. Action, adventure, comedy, drama, feminism, romance, you name it – Mulan‘s got it. And it marks a huge progression in the way that Disney portrayed (and continues to portray) female characters: Mulan was the first Disney Princess to bear arms, and unsurprisingly she also has the highest kill count of any Disney Princess (her record is 1,995, in case you’re wondering). The Emperor even offered her a place in his council (which she politely refused). And while she and Shang clearly had feelings for each other, their relationship still had a long way to go by the end of the movie, marking a nice change from other Disney films in which heroines meet, fall in love with, and marry their love interests in less than a week (ahem, Ariel). Considering that the film was originally conceived as the story of a starving Chinese orphan girl who is saved from her miserable life by a British gentleman and goes off to live with him in the West, I’d say that’s progress.
The Princess And The Frog (2009):
The Princess: Tiana gets overlooked and underrated a lot. Disney’s first African-American Princess, and the first Princess to hold a job, this idealistic, hard-working modern (a.k.a. 1920’s modern) woman was a refreshingly unique addition to the royal Disney line-up. Unfortunately, due to plot circumstances, she spent almost the entirety of her movie in the body of a frog, meaning that there was very little time to actually learn to appreciate her as a person. Like Pocahontas before her, Tiana is an awesome Princess trapped in a so-so movie: in a better one, where she could have been happily human, I think she might have connected with audiences far more than she did. Rating: 8/10
The Prince: Prince Naveen, the distinguished (but nearly bankrupt) royal visitor to New Orleans who gets turned into a frog and accidentally drags Tiana into his chaotic troubles, could have made for a fairly interesting love interest – but the movie never really does anything with him. We never even get to learn what culture he’s supposed to come from, or what his motivations are – beyond making (or rather, being given) large amounts of money. He’s the pampered, materialistic royal brat that Princess Jasmine was originally written to be – but there’s a reason the makers of Aladdin changed Jasmine’s characterization, and somebody should have thought to do the same with Naveen. Rating: 4/10
The Villain: the New Orleans sorcerer charlatan Doctor Facilier has all the elements of a great, even iconic rogue – his bright, flashy sense of style; his deep, charismatic voice (provided by Keith David); and his unique brand of magic, informed by voodoo and occultism. In his secret lair/otherworldly portal/music hall, the top-hatted Doctor plots devious ways to scam the gullible out of their money, while his autonomous shadow capers about the shadows with gleeful sinuosity. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t use him to the full extent, and as a result he too is frequently forgotten. Rating: 5/10
The Songs: with a soundtrack inspired by the awesome sounds of Jazz Age New Orleans, you would think The Princess And The Frog would have some of the most memorable songs in Disney history. But as with everything in this movie, it’s a great concept that doesn’t really amount to anything in the actual film. There’s a couple of tunes you can hum along with – “Almost There”, “Friends On The Other Side” – but that’s my limit. Rating: 4/10
Happy Ever After? according to Disney executives, putting the word “Princess” in the title of this movie was their fatal mistake, as it supposedly alienated audiences who felt it was more childish than other Disney offerings. But in my opinion, the studio should have worried less about the title and more about making a good movie. The Princess And The Frog has a whole bunch of cool, even unique ideas, but they’re buried under a boringly conventional comedy: you want two interesting protagonists who are both people of color? Okay, but, surprise, they’re frogs. You want a thought-provoking exploration of class and racial divides in a historical setting? Okay, but only about a half-hour of the movie is actually set in New Orleans – the rest of the time you’ll spend in the fantastical bayous of Louisiana with a musical alligator and a romantic firefly. This movie could have been excellent, but there’s simply too many stories and subplots going on all at once.
The Princess: Rapunzel is everything that Ariel should have been twenty years earlier: she’s just as naive and occasionally nonsensical as her aquatic predecessor, but always retains her wits and sense of responsibility – unlike Ariel, Rapunzel looks before she leaps (quite literally) from her cloistered tower. Her journey is also one of Disney’s strongest arcs in recent history: a princess whose incredibly long hair inherited the healing properties of a magical flower, Rapunzel was abducted at birth by Mother Gothel (more on her in a minute), who raised her as a daughter for sixteen years, using her to extend her own life and keep her healthy and youthful. But once Rapunzel realizes what’s going on, she wastes no time in standing up to her abusive parent and fighting for her rights. Rating: 9/10
The Prince: Flynn Rider is Disney’s best Prince: classically charming, roguish, casual, funny, practical, handsome…it’s almost like he was designed by a focus group of real women who were asked to design the most attractive man in Disney history. Oh wait, he was. The culmination of decades worth of experimentation and slow progress, Rider is the perfect counterpart to Rapunzel’s innocence – a cunning outlaw who initially underestimates the princess, but eventually finds himself falling in love with her. Rating: 9/10
The Villain: Mother Gothel, Rapunzel’s abusive mother figure, has her pros and cons – on the one hand, she’s very much a revamp of the Wicked Queen and Wicked Stepmother of earlier Disney films, and her motivations (everlasting beauty and longevity) are uninspired; but on the other, her character is far more interesting – and real – than almost any Disney villain before her. Gothel is purely evil, manipulating Rapunzel and constantly undermining or mocking her: in her chilling song, “Mother Knows Best”, the hateful villain derides her daughter for even daring to think she could survive in the outside world. But trapped in Gothel’s tower, Rapunzel is subjected to constant humiliation on multiple levels – for instance, Gothel’s affections are rarely lavished on Rapunzel herself, but rather on her magic hair, the only part of her that Gothel actually cares about; Gothel even refers to her as “Flower”, reducing her to nothing more than an inanimate object to be used for her powers. What’s even more terrifying is the realization that, if Flynn Rider had never shown up and upset the natural balance of things, Rapunzel would have been forced to spend her entire life serving the needs of this horrible, semi-demonic creature. Yikes. Rating: 8/10
The Songs: None of the songs in Tangled are real showstoppers – there’s the aforementioned “Mother Knows Best”, which I think is the best song in the movie, and there’s “I See The Light”, which is formulaic at best, and beyond that…well, there is “When Will My Life Begin”, which does have a catchy tune. I mentioned a while ago in this post that all the Disney Princess films since Sleeping Beauty have had at least one great song? Tangled is the only slight exception to that rule. Rating: 4/10
Happy Ever After? this film has had one of the longest journeys to the big screen in all of movie history – initially, Walt Disney himself planned to adapt the classic fairytale, but couldn’t figure out a way to make the story suitably epic (apparently, Snow White was epic enough for him), and he shelved the project. Decades later, in the early 2000’s, the studio began working on a Rapunzel movie that would have been witty, funny and a little cheesy. Then it became a modern fairytale set in San Francisco. Finally, after much deliberation and years of hard work, it became the studio’s fiftieth animated picture, and opened the door to the new world of Disney CGI films. Along the way, they created one of their most charming, heartwarming stories yet: an empowering, distinctly modern fairytale that would probably have Walt Disney spinning in his grave. It’s a great indicator of how far Disney (and society) has come, and of how far they still have to go.
The Princess: Merida absolutely should have been awesome. She’s a feminist warrior princess with irreverent Gaelic sensibilities, who wields a gigantic longbow, communicates with the magical spirits of her highland forest like Scottish Pocahontas, and refuses to get married despite her mother’s insistence that she act like a proper Medieval lady and marry another nobleman to unite the clans. Merida realizes that she doesn’t need to get married to do that: instead, she brings unity to her land through sheer presence and force of will. And all those things help to make her one of Disney’s coolest Princesses – on paper. In the actual film, while Merida displays incredible bravery, she never gets to fully unleash that inner Boudicea that I think we all wanted to see – as a warrior, she doesn’t even come close to rivaling Mulan’s kill-count. And as someone of Celtic descent myself, I expect to see my Celtic princess go full berserker. One measly fight with a demon bear? That’s the best that Disney/Pixar could muster? Rating: 7/10
The Prince: Merida is the first Disney Princess to remain single – but she doesn’t just turn down her hordes of suitors. Instead, when she learns that her mother has set up a competition where the firstborn sons of other clan leaders have to succeed at an archery contest in order to win her hand in marriage, Merida, as the firstborn daughter of the King, marches out onto the field and demands to compete for her own hand – and don’t let it be thought that her bark is worse than her bite, because Merida totally owns the competition, splitting another contestant’s arrow-shaft right down the middle in an incredible feat, and scoring a perfect bulls-eye. I’d like to see either of the Charmings try something like that.
The Villain: the primary antagonist of Brave is a giant demon bear named Mor’du, who is revealed to have been the King who originally split up the four clans in an age long past. But by the time our story begins, Mor’du is just kind of wandering around the woods, randomly attacking people or lurking in a super-creepy ruined castle. While there are some truly disturbing flashbacks sequences in which we glimpse Mor’du’s transformation into a giant demon bear, he’s not a particularly interesting villain in an already conventional movie. Rating: 2/10
The Songs: because this is a Disney film, there are songs in Brave. Because this is a Pixar film, those songs aren’t actually sung by the characters in the film – which makes them subsequently feel more removed from the story, less integral to character development and more like pretty embellishments. So no, the music of Brave isn’t anything too fantastic, but I’ve got to give it a few extra points because…well, it’s Celtic. I’m sorry, but anything even vaguely Tolkienesque makes me happy. I’m tempted to give the film far more credit than it deserves simply because one of the art manager’s first name is Lorien. Rating: 5/10
Happy Ever After?Brave might be an unambitious and downright archetypal fairytale at times, but it’s got a lot of heart, and a great emotional core in the story of a young woman’s complicated relationship with her mother; a story that most people will be able to relate to in some way, even if not all of us have accidentally transformed our mothers and siblings into bears. I certainly haven’t. Merida is cool, if underused. Celtic anything is fun, at least in my mind. The humor is typical of Pixar’s more mature, edgy brand. It’s a good movie: it just doesn’t bring anything really groundbreaking to the table.
The Princess: she arrived in theaters mere weeks after the shocking 2016 election, ushering in what many believed to be a new, proudly feminist era of Disney movies. This young Polynesian explorer, with her realistic body standard and irrepressible courage, was bound to be embraced with open arms. Decades worth of Disney history are written into Moana’s character, like her very own set of magical tattoos: the fearlessness of Mulan; the stubbornness of Merida; Jasmine’s defiance; Ariel’s curiosity. She’s not Disney’s most unique Princess, but she has the benefit of being the latest in a long line of heroines who have slowly been breaking the glass ceiling since 1950 (sorry, Snow White, you did nothing). Rating: 8/10
The Prince: as in Brave, there isn’t one. Moana spends the entirety of the movie happily single, and shows no interest in romance – nor do her parents or community try to force her into marriage; a refreshing change. Maui, the mischievous demigod who helps Moana on her journey, is sometimes unofficially referred to as the film’s Prince. I prefer to think of Moana as only the second Disney Prince-less movie. And yes, that’s a stupid pun, and no, I don’t care, because Moana features some of the worst humor in Disney history: I think I’m justified.
The Villain: not including a major element of the Disney Princess formula in your Disney Princess movie is a risky move, but it can be done. But that’s not to say it should be done in excess. The big reveal at the end of Moana is that there is no real villain – the volcanic goddess Te Kā turns out to be the life-giving goddess Te Fiti after all: Moana returns the magical Heart of Te Fiti to the deity, and all of Polynesia is saved. It’s a shocking easy ending, and one that instantly makes you think there must be something else coming: but no. Throughout the film, there are minor antagonists (sea monsters, demon pirates shaped like coconuts, a giant crab), but nobody that actually equates to a full-out villain. And without that crucial element, the entire movie ends up falling a little flat. Yes, it’s original – but it’s also somewhat uninteresting when we’ve spent an entire movie watching Moana summon the incredible powers of the Pacific Ocean…only to never have her use them except to part the waves.
The Songs: at the very least, the film has a pretty catchy soundtrack. “How Far I’ll Go”, despite often being unfavorably compared to Frozen’s “Let It Go”, is one of my favorite Disney tunes it’s powerful, inspiring, beautifully performed by Auli’i Cravalho, and it’s accompanied by a great sequence of Moana diving into the ocean and retrieving the Heart of Te Fiti, before rising out of the waters to find the ghosts of her ancestors assembled in a veritable armada, flanking her as she steers her ship into the future. Gets me every time. The downside is that this soundtrack also includes “Shiny”, which ranks somewhere between 0 and -1 on my ranking of Disney songs. Rating: 5/10
Happy Ever After? I’m not a big fan of Moana, personally. It’s got its moments, but the majority of the film is basically just Moana and Maui sailing. While there’s complexity in Moana’s own emotional arc, the plot is just a straight line between Motu Nui and the island of Te Fiti – there are pitfalls and a couple of detours, but nothing that lasts more than a couple of minutes. Watching the film is rather like being on a very slow-moving boat: after a while, the beautiful scenery is really just more water, and the destination is just a hazy question-mark on the horizon.
So there you have it. Every official Disney Princess movie ever – from chirpy Snow White wandering around the forest looking for houses to clean, to fearless Moana daring the open ocean to bring peace back to her village. Do you see the difference? Since 1937, the idea of what defines a Princess has been evolving – slowly, at times, but always just enough that with each new Disney movie there comes just a little bit more progress. We no longer idolize Princesses whose only defining trait was “good housewife” – now, we have warriors, leaders, explorers and businesswomen. With each new movie (except Frozen for whatever reason), the Princesses get stronger, more diverse, and more representative of the personalities, characteristics and motivations of real women and girls across the world.
Who is your favorite Disney Princess, and why? Share your own thoughts and opinions in the comments below!
Disney & Pixar’s Soul promises a whole bunch of mind-boggling metaphysics in its first, minute-long teaser trailer: and surprisingly few “ugly-cry” moments from a studio that will keep Kleenex in business for years to come. But if anyone’s gonna make us sob in this movie, it’s going to be star Jamie Foxx, who is already doing an excellent job in his Pixar debut as the studio’s first black leading man.
His trailer monologue sounds like excerpts from some rousing speech that his character, middle school teacher Joe Gardner probably gives in the third act: he talks passionately and brilliantly about how life is too short to waste being anything other than what you want to be – what you were born to be. For Joe, that’s a career as a great jazz musician, a goal he works hard to achieve – before tripping into an open manhole in the street and…um, turning into a tiny glowing green vaguely-amoeba shaped thing? Did he die? Is he unconscious? Knowing Pixar, they killed him.
Either way, his little green soul is clearly very much alive – or, at least, undead. He finds himself in what appears to be the vast expanse of the cosmos, watching in exasperation as Tina Fey’s little glowing green undead soul tells him that she wants to be remembered for her funny cowboy-dance. I’m not entirely sure what Joe is supposed to learn in the soul region, as he already appears to have his life pretty much in order and he clearly understands what he wants to be and how he wants to get there – but Pixar is usually pretty good with thematic material, so I trust them to put together a compelling story.
So what do you think? How would you rate the trailer, and how many tears do you think you’ll shed, watching little green lightbulbs wax poetic about philosophy? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Pixar is going all out on the sob-factor in their new, humorously quirky, vaguely unsettling trailer for Onward, a film about two brothers trying to resurrect their deceased father in a world full of magic, mischief, and angry unicorns. And it’s a good thing they are, because it’s all they’ve got so far.
As in the first trailer, I’m still not seeing much about the actual concept that feels entirely unique – yes, it’s turning common fantasy tropes upside-down and giving them a funny twist, but…it’s been done. The unicorns raiding trash cans, the biker gang of fairies, the pet dragon: I mean, maybe it’s just because I read a lot of Terry Pratchett’s work, but “mundane magic” doesn’t feel extremely high-concept anymore. But, of course, Pixar isn’t relying solely on setting to sell this story – no, they’re relying on human tears to fuel this movie at the box-office.
In this new trailer, we watch Ian and Barley Lightfoot, our Elven protagonists, as they attempt to use a magic staff to bring their father back from the dead for a single day – but, this being Pixar, the plan backfires, and what they’re left with is a pair of sentient ghost legs that will probably make us all cry ourselves to death in the theater, but for the moment just look…kind of creepy, to tell you the truth. That situation is not alleviated when the brothers attempt to disguise the legs by giving their dad a fake body composed of several sweatshirts, jackets and a pair of glasses – am I supposed to stifle a sob at the sight, or tremble in terror? Honestly, I’m not sure.
Yeah, and then, um, I think somebody gets decapitated? And also burned to a crisp? I’m not entirely sure what to think of that, but the impression I’m getting is that, for all of Onward‘s yoga trolls and casual cyclops (cyclopses? cyclopsis?) this world is actually quite dark and dangerous: after all, it wouldn’t really be Pixar without somebody dying or getting killed in the opening sequence – though, as we recently learned from Toy Story 4, even some of the studio’s most nightmarish villains get served up justice.
The trailer gives us a bit of humor, mostly resulting from the highly awkward scenario of having to travel around with a pair of legs, searching for the top half of a ghost. But the actual jokes are pretty weak – probably because Pixar is saving their best ones for the movie-going experience. The studio has often been accused of having weak trailers for great films, and I hope that Onward is no different: sure, it might look a little derivative right now, but who’s not going to see this film at some point, whether in theaters or on streaming? Are you?
What do you think of the trailer, and what are your thoughts on the genre? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Okay. Let me just preface this by reminding you that yesterday, when I discussed my overall feelings toward Toy Story 4, I had basically no clue what to say – my mind was still reeling from what I had just seen, and the emotions were still too near, too raw.
Now, I’ve had a chance to think over everything that happened in the movie, and I think I can put into words what I was attempting to explain yesterday – at the very least, I’ll try, and we’ll see how it goes. This is a SPOILER REVIEW, which will make it much easier for me to discuss certain things (obviously), but if you don’t want to know anything about Toy Story 4 I urge you to leave now.
And for those of you who have seen the film already (or simply don’t care about spoilers), then let’s hop on this merry-go-round – sorry, carousel – of emotions.
First, let’s just discuss one of the overwhelmingly positive things about the movie: the story itself. Never has a Toy Story movie felt so deep and complex, with so much richness of detail – except maybe Toy Story 2, still my favorite of the franchise and the only one that, in my opinion, perfectly balanced the arcs of our main characters, who were Woody, Buzz and Jessie at the time. Introducing Bo Peep to the story in Toy Story 4 adds a large complexity to this film, as the story has to work overtime to establish her as a character, since – well, she really wasn’t one in Toy Story or Toy Story 2, and she wasn’t even present in Toy Story 3. So this film does have an issue sometimes while juggling the stories of four main leads – but we’ll get to that. Leaving them aside, the plot itself is an intricate web, with a good balance of comedic and dramatic moments: it even turns into an elegant film-noir suspense thriller when our antagonist, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), enters the picture. One thing I didn’t understand while watching the movie and still don’t understand now is Pixar president Jim Morris’ claim that Toy Story 4 is a “romantic comedy” – I mean, sure, the love story of Woody (Tom Hanks) and Bo Peep (Annie Potts) plays a large part, and tries hard to look like the defining factor in Woody’s eventual decision to leave behind his life as a toy – but it really isn’t. It was inevitable from the movie’s first few scenes that Woody had no reason to stay with his new child owner, Bonnie – he was constantly reminiscing about his better days with Andy, and some of the other toys, specifically Dolly (Bonnie Hunt), were treating him like worthless garbage. The romance only gives Woody additional motivation to leave. So, if anything, the movie feels most like a feel-good motivational film about learning self-value.
A really hilarious one, though: I have no qualms about admitting that Toy Story 4 is easily the funniest entry in the franchise, with a large assortment of brilliant one-liners and running gags – many of them packed into the last twenty minutes of the movie, as Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Trixie (Kristen Schaal), and Forky (Tony Hale) team up to try and stop Bonnie’s family from leaving in their RV: what starts out with Jessie merely puncturing the vehicle’s tires and Buzz causing a humorous distraction turns into hysterical comedy when Trixie sabotages the GPS and starts trying to lead the family back to the fairground where they left Woody – “Right! Another right! RIGHT!”, while Buttercup (Jeff Garlin) frantically tries to help by grabbing hold of the accelerator. Eventually cops start trailing the erratic RV, and Forky even locks Bonnie’s dad out of the car – and somehow Bonnie sleeps through all of this. I gotta say, I really felt for Bonnie’s parents in this movie: not only did they have to handle one very hyper and very forgetful child (literally, I lost count of how many times she misplaces her backpack in this movie), but their weekend vacation turned really stressful, really fast. No fault of their own, of course.
But I have to admit, I cracked up when the RV finally ground to a halt at its (a.k.a the toys’) destination, and Buttercup exclaimed “Dad’s totally going to jail now!”.
Just as funny, if not funnier, is the addition of Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele) to the Toy Story universe: two lovable plush toys with big egos and laser eyes (no, really!), their back-and-forth repertoire is one of the movie’s highlights – their best running joke is one that we glimpsed a part of in the final trailer, where they attack an elderly lady: as I suspected, this scenario is merely a hypothetical, but it’s actually just one in a long list of different ideas that the duo come up with in order to take an important key from the woman. The other battle-plans that they propose get funnier and funnier, until we culminate in the ultimate horror parody – where we watch the woman lock up shop for the night, drive home down lonely country lanes, eat dinner, take a bath, and settle into bed, all set to some quaint, foreboding music, only to have Ducky and Bunny rise above her pillow as she sleeps – which cuts away as we hear the woman scream in terror. “Yeah, we’re not doing that,” Buzz declares. In the end, they manage to get the key by pure luck, as the woman happens to set it down on the shelf right next to them, but the “ol’ plush rush”, as the fluffy toys call one of their more tame strategic maneuvers, is used twice more in the film: once to help a young child find her parents, and once during a mid-credits cut-scene where Ducky and Bunny imagine themselves terrorizing their human overlords and becoming gargantuan, unstoppable forces of apocalyptic power, equipped with laser eyes. All this is even funnier when you remember that Jordan Peele is a horror-film director himself, and these scenes act as gentle satire of his own preferred genre.
However, I did not expect the rest of the film to also adopt certain horror tropes – most notably with its host of absolutely terrifying ventriloquist dolls, and the scene where Woody wakes up after having his voice-box removed only to find one of these dolls staring down at him with a frightening smile. In fact, those dolls were everywhere – they were used for multiple jump-scare moments, including one in which an unsuspecting woman runs to grab an out-of-control baby-carriage, screaming when she discovers one of the puppets inside it. In fact, the humans of Toy Story were subjected to more unimaginable humiliations and nightmarish events than ever before in the franchise – even leaving aside the many times Ducky and Bunny wanted to burn them all, humans were manipulated, scared out of their minds and left heartbroken by toys in this movie. I felt devastated for one child, Harmony, when she took Woody with her to the park only to have him run away as soon as her back was turned – and then, of course, I hated Harmony when she threw away Gabby Gabby later in the film.
Honestly, Gabby Gabby is probably the franchise’s best villain ever – except for maybe, just maybe, Emperor Zurg from Toy Story 2, because he terrified me as a kid. In general, the new characters are all fantastic: Keanu Reeves’ Duke Caboom does a lot even with limited screentime; Forky is wonderful and must be protected at all costs – and his new girlfriend Knifey, who gets revealed during a mid-credits scene, looks fun too; there are even cameos from Mel Brooks, Carol Burnett and Carl Reiner, though far too brief to make much of an impression; and even Bo Peep’s sheep get personalities.
Unfortunately, the cast of characters has become so large that it would be impossible to give everyone the appreciation they deserve: Hamm, Rex, the Potato Heads, Slinky Dog and the iconic three-eyed aliens are all completely sidelined throughout the movie, given little or no dialogue (were the aliens even in the movie at all?), and any semblance of character arcs for them are nonexistent. I mean, I don’t know about you, but it makes me really angry that the aliens weren’t part of the film’s finale, as they were in Toy Story 3 – they’re iconic characters, unofficial mascots of the franchise.
I could even have forgiven that, though, if this hadn’t also happened to literally everyone not named Woody or Bo Peep. Buzz Lightyear and Jessie should have been crucial characters in this story’s plot – but the film only tries half-heartedly with Buzz, and it doesn’t even try at all with Jessie. Was I inordinately happy when Woody gave his Sheriff’s badge to Jessie at the end of the movie? Yes! But it felt like a poor attempt to make her seem important: in Toy Story 2, she was the heart and soul of the movie – but here, she was merely one face in an over-crowded ensemble that couldn’t even be bothered to give Buzz Lightyear a decent conclusion. Saying the oft-repeated catchphrase “To infinity and beyond” does not count, in my opinion. But Woody and Bo Peep, well, they got plenty of time to frolic around the fairground, chatting, laughing, and going to nightclubs – where Bo proceeded to treat Woody as her “accessory”.
If I may make a Marvel comparison here, I feel like Woody was both the Iron Man and the Captain America of Toy Story 4: Iron Man because he was constantly being treated poorly by everyone around him – and Captain America because, in the end, he chooses to go off and live the life he always wanted with Bo Peep, abandoning his own “no toy left behind” mantra, after passing on his responsibilities to Jessie. In which case Buzz is his Bucky, and in both cases neither friendship got to end with any sort of satisfying conclusion to years of emotional, important storytelling.
As you can probably guess, I’m a little conflicted about the ending: on the one hand, I knew it was coming and I appreciated its bravery. On the other hand, I expected Pixar to handle it a little less roughly and awkwardly than they did – maybe it’s because we did just see this sort of thing in Avengers: Endgame (stop cannibalizing your own movies, Disney!), or maybe it’s because I was dumbfounded while watching it, but it didn’t have the impact I expected it to; not because it didn’t make me cry (it did), but because it didn’t feel final to me. I don’t want this to be the ending – Jessie and Buzz didn’t even get proper character arcs! There were no aliens! There’s still so much story left to tell!
Even if it doesn’t involve Woody or Bo Peep, can’t we get a Toy Story 5 focused on the toys still living in Bonnie’s room? – but no, instead there’s a Bo Peep short film called “Lamp Life” on its way to Disney Plus, where we’ll probably learn more about her escape from the antique store and her acclimation to life as a lost toy. There is also apparently a series of short features about Forky (and presumably Knifey) arriving on the streaming platform as well, which, according to Tony Hale, should have room for tons of cameos from the original cast.
I had a lot of trouble deciding what to say about this movie in a non-spoiler review – I was left completely speechless after the film ended, and for about twenty minutes I still had virtually no words to describe what I had just seen. I was tempted to say that the experience was surreal: watching a franchise that is a dearly beloved part of my childhood…come to an end. But, while it certainly felt surreal at times (how is this happening? This can’t be happening? I’m not actually watching this happen onscreen in front of my eyes? Those were some of the thoughts running through my head while watching), I’ve decided that what was actually most shocking was that this movie, the final chapter in more than twenty years of Toy Stories, didn’t feel entirely final.
Don’t get me wrong: the movie is a very satisfying conclusion to the stories of our protagonists, especially Sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks) and Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who are given the fullest character arcs – for an ornament attached to a lamp, Bo certainly manages to make up for lost time in this movie: somehow, despite the fact that she’s only gotten a handful of lines and a few minutes of screentime in all three previous Toy Story movies combined, she doesn’t feel like a new character; even though, when you think about it, she really ought to. Woody’s story is definitely concluded here as well – the movie’s ending is appropriately poignant and tear-jerking, but it’s fair. It allows you to cry while also reminding you why you should be happy: even if it is hard to feel at all happy.
But what I’m trying to say is that, even as we say goodbye to the individual toys, the Toy Story feels like it’s still going strong – a little more than halfway through the movie, the realization hit me hard: there are a billion topics and themes that could be explored through the eyes of any one of these characters. I can’t even explain exactly how or why this light-bulb went off inside my head, but it completely changed the way I was watching the film: it no longer felt like I was waiting for the inevitable sob-fest and emotional farewells at the end – it felt more like I was watching a new beginning. I think that feeling will wear off as the realization dawns that this is indeed the final chapter, but at least for these blissful moments it’s enough to keep me from crying my eyes out.
All this is not to say that Toy Story 4 feels inconclusive or unfinished: the movie, in fact, is probably one of my favorites in the franchise – still a little behind Toy Story 2. It’s definitely the saddest and funniest installment. There are gut-wrenching emotional scenes (as in, the very first scene of the movie), and there are hysterically funny jokes and running gags. I’m just having a very hard time explaining: and maybe it’s because these movies mean so much to me, on a personal level. I love all of them – except Toy Story 3 – and I love all the toys. All I really needed from this movie were real, satisfying endings to the stories of our main characters: namely Woody, Bo Peep, Jessie (Joan Cusack), and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen).
I got half of that.
I would be lying if I didn’t admit that Jessie and Buzz don’t really get the endings I had in mind for them: their stories don’t end badly or anything, just not as well as I’d hoped. And I think that’s probably just my own opinion – but I feel like both characters could have gotten more screentime, more attention, than they received in this movie: Buzz was a huge onscreen presence in the first film, and Jessie’s character arc was a major focal point of the second. But Toy Story 4 really has no time for either of them. They have their funny moments, of course, and Buzz even has the beginnings of what looks like an entire subplot, but it just ends up leading right back to Woody and Bo Peep.
My biggest fear going in, though, was that new characters like Forky (Tony Hale), Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), and the comedic plushy-duo Bunny and Ducky (Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key) would hog the spotlight and distract from our main cast of regulars. Having seen the film, I’m just sorry that all these new faces come in too late to be part of that main cast: all four are wonderful, creative and hilarious additions to the franchise. Peele and Key especially get some fantastic moments, when they parody Peele’s own horror movies in a family-friendly, laugh-out-loud manner. Reeves actually has surprisingly little screentime, but just enough to make his character feel worthwhile rather than obnoxious – compare and contrast that with Toy Story 3, in which all the new toys seemed to be constantly stealing valuable moments away from our actual heroes (looking at you, Ken). Sadly, the characters we knew from the first three movies were clearly never going to get that much screentime at all – Rex, Hamm, Slinky Dog, and the Potato Heads do basically nothing at all: I don’t think Mrs. Potato Head (Estelle Harris) even got a single line of dialogue. Even the new toys from the third movie only get a few good moments: specifically, Buttercup (Jeff Garlin) and Trixie (Kristen Schaal). One random character who turned out to be incredibly annoying was Dolly (Bonnie Hunt) who acts sweet on the surface, but is really bossy and not at all empathetic with Woody’s own metaphysical crisis.
As always with the Toy Story films, the villain is superb: Toy Story 4 showcases the series’ first female antagonist, defective antique doll Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), who has made it her mission to kidnap Woody and steal his working voice-box for herself, so she can finally make it out of the dark, dusty store in which she lives. I could sympathize with her pain: the cobwebs in that place were horrifying, even if animated.
The animation is reason enough to see this movie on the big screen: there are times in the film when you think you’re watching a live-action film – especially in the first scene, when it’s raining, and a certain toy is stuck in a gutter, about to be washed away into oblivion; and also for one brief moment, glimpsed in the trailers, where the antique store owner’s cat is stretching in the sunlight – that cat looked eerily real.
That’s pretty much all that I feel comfortable discussing in a non-spoiler review. Obviously, a lot of stuff happens in this movie, and there were a couple of really exciting plot-twists that had me at the edge of my seat (there was also one shocking moment when Bo Peep’s sheep drop to the floor that I felt needed to be mentioned: if you don’t gasp out loud in the theater when you see it, you’re cruel and heartless). I think the movie is really a fantastic film, pushing the limits of what can be done with animation, and I’m pretty confident it will win Best Animated Feature at next year’s Oscars. I’m just not entirely sure how I feel about it as an ending to the franchise yet, because, as I said before, I’m satisfied but I’m not…well, I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m still expecting something more, and I don’t know what. A Toy Story 5 isn’t happening. I know there will be a Bo Peep miniseries on the Disney Plus streaming platform, alongside a series focused on Forky, but those aren’t really piquing my interest yet: I feel like, if anyone was cheated in this movie, it was Jessie and Buzz. I want a Disney Plus series about them, not the spork! (No offense, Forky).
Well, that’s all for now, at least until I start writing my spoiler review: hopefully my feelings and emotions are clearer by then. But for now…so long, partner.
Unfortunately, this trailer dropped late at night, so I was unable to review it then – but we’re here now, aren’t we? Honestly, I have no idea who at Pixar and Disney thought it was a good idea to release the first teaser trailer for an animated kid’s movie at night, it’s not like this is going to be Maleficent or something, but whatever.
Let’s take a look, shall we?
Right off the bat, the animation looks pretty good, as we soar over a mystical land of magic and wonder, populated by flying unicorns and mermaids. Then, in a charming shot, we see a jet-plane interrupt the tranquility of this strange place. After that initial moment of wonder, the trailer goes rapidly downhill as we enter the magical suburbs where our protagonists live.
Don’t get me wrong, none of that has to do with voice actors Tom Holland and Chris Pratt. Holland sounds essentially like…well, like Holland, which works for his character; a shy, scrawny, teenage elf named Ian Lightfoot, who is clearly modeled off the actor’s more notable role as Spider-man, presumably in an attempt to attract Holland’s mobs of overzealous fans (though his fans would ravenously devour him in any role, to be honest). Pratt’s character, Barley Lightfoot (seriously, that’s his name), the brother of our teenage elf protagonist, is some sort of grungy adventurer who drives around in a unicorn-emblazoned van, talking loudly and using archaic words – like an entire movie of Pratt’s Marvel character Star-Lord copying Thor’s voice, from that iconic scene in Avengers: Infinity War. The two elf brothers are apparently on a quest (which Holland’s elf denies is a quest) to find the last remaining real magic in their world, somewhere outside of their town of…New Mushroomton (as if the names in this movie didn’t already sound rather trippy, New Mushroomton is all the evidence you need to prove that someone working on this film is smoking something).
And it’s New Mushroomton that’s the problem, as one might expect. Yes, the whole premise of the movie is that magic is now commonplace: we see mermaids checking their texts while lounging in the pool, centaurs jogging, unicorns raiding garbage cans like really sparkly raccoons. That’s fine, but the animation doesn’t illustrate this concept with charm or the usual Pixar wit – the New Mushroomton suburbs look rather boring, and what could be some really juxtapositions of the magic and the mundane…look pretty unimaginative. For instance, Ian Lightfoot’s pet being a dragon that acts like a dog – that is the easiest possible choice, and it’s been done before! Why not have the dragon be a cat? – or, better yet, have the Lightfoots’ pet be something interesting, like a giant spider or a phoenix, or something.
I mean, yeah, it’s just a brief teaser trailer, but it does nothing to excite me in the way that a Pixar film usually would; so far, I’m not seeing the creativity I’m used to seeing from this studio.