Although I initially had my reservations about Netflix’s fast-paced attempts to expand a single season of The Witcher into a multi-medium franchise with prequels and spinoffs before the second season had even started filming (in fact, it still hasn’t wrapped), I have since changed my mind for two reasons. Firstly, because The Witcher has proven to be my go-to rewatchable comfort show during quarantine, and I’ve plunged deeper into the grimdark fantasy’s extensive lore (both book-canon and video game-canon, mind you) with each successive rewatch. I appreciate the series more now than ever before, and I’m itching to return to The Continent and explore more of its monster-infested forests, bogs, and mountains.
Secondly, because Jodie Turner-Smith joining The Witcher‘s prequel spinoff in a lead role is the kind of casting that immediately sets this prequel, titled Blood Origin, apart from a crowd of fantasy stories that will soon flood every streaming service imaginable. Turner-Smith’s filmography is still relatively sparse, but her breakout role in 2019’s Queen & Slim is finally paying off – with Turner-Smith having just recently landed the role of Tudor queen Anne Boleyn in a psychological drama based on her life and execution, and now joining Netflix’s Blood Origin in a lead role that has the potential to elevate her to a whole new level of success.
From the brief description we’ve been given by Deadline, Turner-Smith’s role already sounds intriguing – she will play a character named Éile, “an elite warrior blessed with the voice of a goddess, who has left her clan and position as Queen’s guardian to follow her heart as a nomadic musician.” But “A grand reckoning on the continent will force her to return to the way of the blade in her quest for vengeance and redemption”. What Deadline doesn’t note is that The Illuminerdi broke exclusive details about the casting call for Éile’s character back in November, which additionally confirm that she comes “from a Clan of Elves that use knives as their primary weapon”. At the time, Netflix was interested in actresses with a history of dance and stunt work, suggesting that Jodie Turner-Smith’s part will be strongly action-oriented.
Black heroines in the fantasy genre are rare, but Black action heroines (in any genre) are rarer still. The Witcher has thus far mostly excelled at portraying complex women with a variety of strengths and weaknesses, from endearingly brutish queens like Calinthe to politically-savvy sorceresses like Yennefer. The exceptions to the rule, unfortunately, were characters like Eithné and Fringilla Vigo, both Black women, and both suffering from cardboard-thin characterizations. Fringilla in particular deserved better writing. Her pivotal part in the season finale should have been thrilling, but ultimately disappointed because she wasn’t morally complex enough to sympathize with, nor evil enough to actually hate. With Éile having to balance being a heaven-sent singer and a knife-wielding warrior, I imagine her character will be far more compelling.
Blood Origin will follow her journey during or shortly after The Conjunction Of The Spheres, an era of chaos in The Continent’s prehistory, when worlds and dimensions collided violently, scattering their inhabitants far and wide. With Humans and Elves forced to live in close proximity with an assortment of abhorrent monsters and bloodthirsty demons, powerful sorcerers began construction on the first Witchers – elite mutant assassins capable of hunting and killing the great beasts roaming in the wilderness. Blood Origin was originally believed to follow the first Witcher’s journey (and rumors swirled that he would be played by Jason Momoa), but I hope for Jodie Turner-Smith’s sake that she’s either the actual protagonist, or at least doesn’t get overshadowed in her role.
But what do you think of Jodie Turner-Smith’s casting? And tell me, honestly, how many times have you rewatched The Witcher during quarantine? Share your own thoughts, theories, and opinions, in the comments below!
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.
It’s appropriate that the most purely, unironically wonderful movie of this gloomy year goes hand-in-hand with “the most wonderful time of the year”, the holiday season. Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is adorned with all the embellishments of the most nostalgic classics, but this lighthearted yet surprisingly impactful steampunk Christmas epic has a potent, forward-looking magic that is entirely its own. To say it’s epic is no joke either: the story is action-packed, punctuated by dazzling musical interludes, and spanning five generations of one incredibly inventive family.
That this magical, multi-generational family happens to be Black and specifically comprised mostly of Black women is not merely a more accurate and inclusive reflection of the world we live in, but is also deeply important to the film’s hopeful message. Although I will leave the matter of whether or not Jingle Jangle is good representation to Black film critics and viewers, I will say that the film’s joyful, diverse, steampunk world left me feeling so inspired and empowered that I truly hope it will do the same for Black audiences of all ages, who haven’t seen themselves represented anywhere near enough in mainstream media: neither in holiday movies, nor in steampunk – which, to be honest, has never been translated particularly well to a live-action medium until now. And whereas a majority of steampunk gets justly criticized for what often feels like an inability by the genre to break free of the same-old Euro-centric, imperialist tropes, Jingle Jangle brings with it an entirely fresh and unique “Afro-Victorian” aesthetic: something that is layered into the styling for the hair, make-up, and costume design, as well as some of the film’s most inspired musical selections – most notably a remix of Ghanaian artist Bisa Kdei’s Afrobeat hit “Asew”, which plays over a lively snowball fight.
With Grammy and Academy Award-winning singer/songwriter John Legend producing, it’s no wonder that Jingle Jangle has the lineup of standout vocal talents and songwriters that it does – including Legend himself, who contributed his talents personally to what is, unsurprisingly, the film’s best song: “Make It Work”, an epic duet between stars Forest Whitaker and Anika Noni Rose. Thanks to compelling dance choreography by The Greatest Showman‘s Ashley Wallen and David E. Talbert’s eye-catching direction, none of these musical numbers fall flat, though a few are simply too short: with Ricky Martin in particular being given very little time or material to work with, and the aforementioned Rose (the iconic voice behind Tiana, Disney’s first Black princess) only getting one opportunity to flaunt her vocal strengths – so deep into the film’s runtime I was scared she wouldn’t get to sing at all.
Rose’s Jessica Jangle, however, has a fairly small role; and it’s understandable – though regrettable – that she doesn’t have more to do. The majority of the film focuses on the dynamic between her father, Jeronicus Jangle (Forest Whitaker), and her own daughter, Journey (promising newcomer Madalen Mills, whose equipped with an incredible voice). Jeronicus, once the most imaginative toy-maker and inventor in all the land, is now a cranky old man living above a pawnbroker’s shop, while Journey is, of course, the bright and sparky young soul who must help him save himself and the last of his long-lost inventions, a robot named Buddy that flies and talks and runs on belief (“believepunk” doesn’t sound quite as catchy as steampunk, though), something that Jeronicus has been sorely lacking as him and his business have fallen into disrepair over the years.
The supporting cast are all excellent, but the one standout whom I simply have to mention is Lisa Davina Phillip, who plays the mail-carrier Ms. Johnston. Fun, flirtatious, and constantly accompanied by a trio of random backup dancers who pop up out of nowhere like sidekicks in an animated movie, Johnston is one of the most delightful comedic relief characters I’ve seen in a while, and I hope that Phillip, whose filmography is still relatively small, gets much more work off this outstandingly good role. Her expressive facial acting and comedic timing even overshadow the film’s campy bad guy.
Keegan-Michael Key plays this character, a hopelessly unimaginative inventor by the name of Gustafson who is somehow under the sway of a narcissistic toy matador named Don Juan (voiced by Ricky Martin), who plots his escape from Jeronicus Jangle’s emporium early on in the film after overhearing his maker’s plan to mass-produce him for the enjoyment of children worldwide. With bland writing, unclear motivations, and a string of jokes that simply aren’t funny, Gustafson and Don Juan are the weak links in this movie. The plot misses a golden opportunity with their characters, too: if Gustafson’s plan is to become fabulously wealthy by stealing all of Jeronicus’ inventions, and Don Juan’s only fear is of being mass-produced and sold, wouldn’t that create a potential conflict of interest between the two? Especially since Gustafson doesn’t actually have any reason to obey the tin toy’s orders (since he is, you know, a toy and all)? Apparently not, since this glaringly obvious solution to all of Gustafson’s problems is taken off the table by Don Juan having apparently “forced” Gustafson to destroy the blueprint for his design offscreen…and again I ask, how can a toy force a human to do anything?
Jingle Jangle‘s costume designer Michael Wilkinson can only do so much for Gustafson’s half-baked character, but his talent is on display everywhere else in the film, in the elegant array of costumes created from a clever mixture of European and African-inspired patterns and styles. Hairstylist Sharon Martin, meanwhile, was assigned the task of recreating Black Victorian hairstyles based on rare photographs from the era: her designs in particular come across as both authentic and beautiful, a tribute to the enduring power and artistry of Black hairstyling.
In a year as exhausting as this one has been, fun and lighthearted films like Jingle Jangle are especially necessary for the respite they offer from day-to-day fears and worries. This is doubly significant given how often Hollywood continues to depict Black characters onscreen only as they exist in relation to traumatic subjects such as slavery and racism, subjects that Hollywood usually exploits for easy Oscar-bait: to see Black heroes and heroines starring in a cheerful holiday musical adventure movie that exists simply to be fun is groundbreaking because of how simple it seems. But that simple magic is what I find to be Jingle Jangle’s strongest asset, and the secret ingredient in this delightful story that will keep audiences coming back for many Christmases to come.
A supersized round of applause is in order for Hollywood newcomer Iman Vellani, who has been cast as the MCU’s Kamala Khan, a.k.a. Ms. Marvel – and also for the character of Kamala Khan herself, a teen Muslim superheroine whose journey from comic-books to video games to Disney+ and MCU stardom has all occurred in a remarkably short amount of time. Vellani, who will take on the starring role in the upcoming Ms. Marvel Disney+ series, is about to fill the shoes of one of Marvel Comics’ most iconic recent characters, and I could not be happier for her. She already has an incredible amount of support from the fandom, and I think we’ll all be excited to see her don Kamala Khan’s costume for the first time.
Because Vellani is completely new to the scene, it’s hard to say much about the casting itself and there are very few details about her to be found. Rest assured, she’ll soon become one of the faces of the MCU moving forward, so before long we’ll know more about her: for now, let’s just make sure we all give her the support she needs heading into this big responsibility. In the meantime, let’s talk a bit about Kamala Khan, the character Vellani will be playing, and why she has resonated so much with the Muslim-American and South Asian-American communities, ever since G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona brought her to life in 2013.
For the most part, Kamala has been written fairly consistently in the pages of Marvel comics. She is a Desi, Pakistani-American Muslim girl and Jersey City citizen, whose powers are revealed to be of Inhuman origin (for those who need a refresher, Inhumans are a group of characters in the Marvel Universe whose powers are unlocked, so to speak, when they are exposed to the Terrigen mist: they’re a bit like Mutants, but not as well known to general audiences – yet). Kamala’s specific powers give her shapeshifting abilities and incredible elasticity: she’s super-stretchy, but in a unique way, where she’s able to redistribute the atoms in her body to form giant hands or feet capable of powerful punches/kicks. They’re bizarre powers, for sure, but visually spectacular – and the recent Avengers PS4 video game, which stars Kamala, showed that her giant fists and stretchy limbs can also make for some exciting action. In the game, Kamala uses her powers to swing across rooftops, and sometimes even grow in size. This is all going to be very interesting to see in Ms. Marvel. It is unclear at the moment if Kamala’s Inhuman origins will be retained: it seems likely to me, but it’s theoretically plausible that Marvel will make her a Mutant or have her obtain her powers in a completely different way altogether.
Kamala’s Ms. Marvel has little to do with the original Ms. Marvel – the moniker worn by Carol Danvers before she was promoted to Captain Marvel – but Kamala is inspired by Carol and by other superheroes as well. The Avengers video game made a mistake by focusing almost exclusively on Kamala as a fangirl and not giving her any personal life beyond that, but there’s no denying that Kamala is a fangirl: meeting her in the MCU will finally allow us a chance to see what some of the general public think of superheroes, and how they’re marketed to the world. Do they have action figures and Funko Pops? Is Kamala part of online fan communities that discuss the Avengers and other heroes? Is there a superhero equivalent of “stan Twitter” within the MCU, and is Kamala a part of it? The possibilities for quirky meta humor (and marketing tie-ins) are endless.
That being said, Ms. Marvel should make Kamala’s family and faith equally as important to the heroine as her love of superheroes, if not more so. In the comics, Kamala struggles on a daily basis as she tries to reconcile her own hopes and dreams with the wishes of her religious, conservative family, and with her Islamic faith in general – but she also loves her family deeply, and finds comfort at her neighborhood mosque. She’s a complex character who’s busy learning how to define herself within the context of her religion, and it’s amazing that we’ll get to see this conflict play out onscreen. It’s also extremely important, not just because of how crucial this is to Kamala’s character, but because of how relevant this same struggle is for so many people around the globe. Few superheroes have even so much as mentioned religion thus far, over twenty films into the MCU’s lifetime, and fewer still seem to actually practice religion or engage in religious communities. Steve Rogers is the closest we’ve really ever gotten, and, well, he’s mostly just Protestant Christian by default, because of course he is. There’s never really been much thought put into it: if anything, it’s used as a joke to underscore how he’s the 1940’s ideal of an all-around perfect guy. And yeah, that’s problematic in and of itself. But Kamala Khan represents a much more nuanced depiction of a religious individual, one that we desperately need to balance out those past mistakes and give people a role model that they can turn to when dealing with their issues of faith.
As for when she’s actually out fighting crime, Ms. Marvel is most frequently working on her own, although she has teamed up with her role model Captain Marvel several times, and it looks likely she’ll do so again in the MCU – possibly in Ms. Marvel, if Brie Larson can be convinced to film a Disney+ cameo, or possibly in Captain Marvel 2, when Kamala makes the jump from streaming to the big screen. It’s my hope, however, that one of Kamala’s guiding influences as a heroine in the MCU will be the Inhuman Quake (played by Chloe Bennet, of course). A long shot? Maybe, but I’m not ruling it out. Kamala and Quake have interacted before in the comics, and with Quake having been established as Inhuman in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s second season, it makes sense to use her to explain the whole thing to general audiences still unfamiliar with the concept. But whether she gets a partner or not, it’s been rumored that Kamala’s first antagonist will be The Inventor, a half-human, half-bird clone of Thomas Edison (and yes, I am aware of how strange that description sounds).
In short, there are no downsides to this news. Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel, is joining the MCU, becoming the first Muslim superhero to headline her own series – just as she was the first Muslim superhero to headline her own comic series. On both fronts, it’s a landmark achievement. Iman Vellani will do an amazing job, and she has our support and genuine admiration as she starts on this journey of a lifetime. And the Muslim-American community…well, I can’t even begin to imagine the impact that this will surely have on members of the community, who will finally see themselves reflected positively in a genre that has all too often depicted them in a negative light, or not at all. Yes, the MCU themselves have done this in the recent past. It’s no use trying to deny it, or ignore it: it’s time to properly address it, and make it right, with smart actions such as this authentic casting choice. I’ve said it before, and I will say it again – Representation Matters.
So what are your thoughts on Iman Vellani as Ms. Marvel? Are you excited for the series? Share your own thoughts, theories and opinions in the comments below!