For me, going to the movie theater on Christmas Day is just a tradition; it’s something I’ve come to expect. Even without the dangers and restrictions of COVID, I would have broken that tradition this year, thanks to my five-month old son. Thanks a lot, you adorable, wonderful baby! Ugh! However, two of 2020’s biggest and most anticipated releases were dropped to streaming services on December 25th, so I got to watch them from the comfort of my house. Let’s dive into the newest film in the Detective Comics franchise and the 23rd film from Pixar.
The films in the DCEU (Detective Comics Extended Universe) have been, and this is a stretch, a mixed bag. The best films have been their animated efforts, Teen Titans Go! To The Movies and The LEGO Batman Movie, which joyfully subvert the genre while also telling engaging and effective stories. At their worst is the hyper-serious slog that is Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, which I have mentioned multiple times on this site as the worst movie I saw in all of the 2010’s. Even the DCEU’s best live-action films are the ones that allow humor and joy to fall into them: It’s fun watching Aquaman bro out or Shazam! show us what it would mean to be a kid in the body of a superhero. But their best live-action film was 2017’s Wonder Woman. Director Patty Jenkins gave us a fun and exciting film while star Gal Gadot shows us that Diana Prince/Wonder Woman is a force to be reckoned with, both as a hero and as a movie commodity. There was a joy to seeing Wonder Woman in the theater surrounded by young girls dressed up as the Amazonian- here was a hero on the big screen showing just how much girls could kick ass. Much like my experience with Marvel’s Black Panther, it was great seeing a hero who wasn’t just another white dude and seeing how different people could see themselves inside the protagonist.
2020’s Wonder Woman 1984 finds Diana Prince (Gadot) living in Washington D.C. missing her love Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who had sacrificed himself for the greater good in the last film. Every now and then, she brandishes her costume and goes and fights crime, but attempts to do so in secret. Things start to turn when she comes across the Dreamstone, a mysterious object that can grant wishes. Prince wishes to be reunited with her lost love, not expecting the damn thing to work. Which makes it all the more surprising when she sees him… well, kind of. It’s a bit of a thing, and we’ll get to that later.
Also using the Wishstone are the two main baddies in this film: Barbara Minerva (Kristin Wiig) uses the stone and wishes to be more like Diana, and is more than a little surprised by what that actually entails. And entrepreneur Max Lord (Pedro Pascal) uses the stone as a way to make everyone’s wishes come true, all while benefitting himself at the same time.
There’s a lot I like about Wonder Woman 1984. For starters, for a movie set in the 1980s, it doesn’t hit you over the head repeatedly with jokes and culture references. As much as I loved last year’s Captain Marvel, too often did the movie try and bludgeon you with references that screamed, “IN CASE YOU DIDN’T KNOW, WE TAKE PLACE IN THE 1990’S AND THAT IS FUNNY!” The 1980’s is simply a setting and not a major plot point or constant source of humor.
There’s also something really interesting about the Dreamstone, which seemingly takes as much as it gives. Wonder Woman is a super strong badass, and it wouldn’t be that exciting to just give her a villain as strong as she is and have them punch each other until a winner remains. By using the construct of wishes and creating that into the concept of the villain, the real villain becomes human want and greed, and that’s a much different take on a comic book movie, especially in the DCEU, which LOVES to just have people punching other people who then punch other people.
The performances here are all a lot of fun. Gadot, sadly, is given the least to do, but knows how to get her big moments. Wiig is delightful here, and it’s a lot of fun to see her showcase the uncomfortable nature of her comedy but turn it into more serious fare. Pascal gets the chance to chew scenery (unlike his much more somber Mandalorian role) and relishes every opportunity. And where the first Wonder Woman has Pine guiding Gadot through a new and strange land, here it’s her turn to take a man who died in World War 2 and acclimate him to the modern day, and it’s a lot of fun to do.
That’s not to say there aren’t problems with this film. There are some big script issues, including the fact that no one seems to care that Steve Trevor is brought back by inhabiting the body of some other dude. There are lots of moral issues to be had, even for jest, but the film just actively chooses to ignore those. Also, much like it’s predecessor, Wonder Woman 1984 slows down in it’s third act and kind of limps to the finish, including the traditional DCEU, “major fight sequence that takes place in the dark” set piece. The film is also over 150 minutes long, and could have easily been cut by 45 minutes, especially if you’re not going to spend any real time dealing with some of the bigger issues.
Still, this is a film with fun action scenes and good performances. It’s not going to be a movie of the year contender, but it’s an alright way to kill a cold December day with some popcorn and some good company. And, this year, that can be pretty… well, wonderful.
Pixar Studios usually excel when they ask what happens when they give human qualities to non-human things. What if toys had feelings? What if monsters worked in a factory? What if a rat wanted to be a chef?
Soul, Pixar’s latest film, asks a much more blunt and direct question: What happens when we die?
This is what we learn about when we watch Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), Soul’s protagonist. Gardner is a middle school music teacher with dreams of becoming a jazz pianist. After having a successful audition to what believes is his big break, Joe falls down a manhole cover and his soul is taken to the afterlife. Struggling to find a way to get back to his body, Gardner strikes a partnership with 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), a soul who does not want to come down to Earth and begin living her life. Gardner’s plan is to use 22 to help him return to his body and then send 22 back to the “Great Before” (where souls waiting for their bodies hang out). Of course, because this is Pixar, things don’t go quite as planned.
Right off the bat, I want to say that this is a Pixar film that I don’t know if younger viewers will appreciate as much as some of the other work the studio has made. Pixar has always been a champion of placing larger philosophical discussions into their films (some of the most interesting films about religion have been the Toy Story franchise), but those big picture conversations are usually sprinkled into side. In Soul, those questions are the entire film, and some of the more existential fare may just fly over the heads of smaller children. If your kid can get past the first half hour while understanding what’s going on, they’re gonna be ok. If not, you may get a few more questions about where deceased relatives are currently existing.
That being said, one of the strongest aspects of the film is that it doesn’t take too long to explain what is happening and what all of the afterlife rules are; the movie explains once or twice how existence and inspiration and all of the other magical things about life intertwine and then expect you to just understand and hold on for the ride. And it’s a fantastic ride, filled with laughs and touching moments and just all of the Disney things we’ve come to expect from director Pete Doctor (Monsters Inc., Inside Out, Up).
Jamie Foxx is the first African-American to be the lead voice in a Pixar film, and he’s absolutely perfectly cast. He brings a longing and need to Gardner. Fey understands that many people find her voice annoying (she says so as much in the film), and leans into it, making 22 a character we want to strangle while also finding compelling. The rest of the cast (Angela Basset, Phyicia Rashad, Questlove) all help flesh out some of the beautiful and colorful animation that Pixar lays out for us.
What helps make this movie soar is it’s incredible score. The jazz sections are composed by Jon Batiste and he makes those numbers swing and soar and keeps your toes tapping. But the rest of the score is composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network), and they bring the absolute mix or wonder and terror to the afterlife, especially for someone who doesn’t want to be there.
Soul is a movie that gives us some interesting looks and very deep questions. As always, Pixar gives us one of the best films of the year, and always keeps me waiting for more.
Wonder Woman 1984- 7.7/10
Wonder Woman 1984 is now available to stream on HBO Max. Soul is now available to stream on Disney+.