Soul review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Pete Docter
Cast : Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Questlove, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, Angela Bassett, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Richard Ayoade, Alice Braga, Wes Studi
Genre: Animation/Comedy/Fantasy
Run Time : 106 min
Opens : 25 December 2020
Rating : PG

Of the mainstream animated studios out there, Pixar has a reputation for generally making more sophisticated fare than its competitors. With Soul, Pixar tackles a question no loftier than “what makes you who you are?”

Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a middle school band teacher and an aspiring jazz pianist. Just when he’s about to get his big break performing with the Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) quartet, he falls down a manhole and goes into a coma. Joe’s soul, bound for The Great Beyond, escapes to the You Seminar, formerly known as “The Great Before”. This is where souls live and gain defining characteristics before they enter corporeal bodies on earth. Joe meets 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who has spent thousands of years evading becoming human. As Joe fights to return to his body on earth, 22 gains an unexpected understanding of, and perhaps an appreciation for, the life she has been trying so hard to avoid.

Soul is hugely ambitious, a metaphysical, existential odyssey that is challenging and sometimes satisfying to embark upon. It is a lively, funny creation; obviously the effort of artists and technicians who have poured their hearts and, well, souls into their work. Director Pete Docter, who co-wrote the film with Mike Jones and Kemp Powers, gives Soul a poignancy that is difficult to describe.

Soul also faces the immense challenge of creating a view of the afterlife (and the ‘afore-life’) that is compatible with multiple belief systems. Great care was taken in shaping the world of the film, with the filmmakers consulting with various religious and cultural experts. The result is something vaguely new-agey and spiritual, but never explicitly religious.

Soul’s design is also often eye-catching, with some clever ideas at play. To convey the ephemeral, intangible nature of a soul, the designers were inspired by the low-density material aerogel. There’s a lot going on here, and a lot of it immensely clever. Soul is, naturally, an intensely emotional film that left this reviewer in tears. It is especially resonant for anyone who’s tried to make a living doing anything creative.

Soul does not seem like a movie made primarily for children and might be Pixar’s least accessible film yet. It is perhaps more difficult to get into than Inside Out, Docter’s previous Pixar film. This does not mean that it doesn’t have elements in it that children will enjoy, but it is going to be difficult for parents to explain what the movie is about. Soul also feels like a movie that is often in search of itself, which befits its themes, but also means it sometimes goes off in many directions. This is a film that demands to be engaged with, but its take on heady philosophical matters can seem a little simplistic or reductive at times.

There are few things as universally moving as music, so it is a canny move to centre the movie on a musician. Soul’s soundscape is a richly textured one, with jazz at its core. Co-writer Powers is, like the protagonist Joe, a Black man from New York in his mid-40s and was a journalist and music critic. Jon Batiste wrote and performed the original jazz tracks in the score, in addition to providing the animators reference for Joe’s piano playing. There is great attention paid to the cultural significance of jazz, with jazz legend Herbie Hancock and anthropologist Dr Johnnetta Cole being two of the consultants on board. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, known for scoring David Fincher films like The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl, seem like unlikely candidates to score a Pixar film, but they deliver moving, uncharacteristically gentle work that is still the right amount of haunting.

Pixar’s films are generally cast well, and Soul is no exception. Jamie Foxx effortlessly essays passion and earnestness, while Tina Fey is endearing as the cynical 22, world-weary despite having never lived. Fey contributed to her character’s dialogue; 22 makes a great throwaway dig at the New York Knicks. Phylicia Rashad breathes life into the relatively small role of Joe’s stern yet loving mother and Angela Bassett is as commanding a presence as ever, voicing a legendary saxophonist. Talk show host Graham Norton brings a friendly quirkiness to hippie sign-twirler Moonwind and Rachel House is funny as the tightly-wound bureaucrat Terry, a soul-counter.

Summary: Made with an abundance of sensitivity and intelligence, Soul artfully tackles some gigantic questions in a resonant manner. Its thematic maturity means that parents will have their work cut out for them in explaining the movie to younger children, but this is a wholly rewarding experience.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Moana

For F*** Magazine

MOANA 

Director : Ron Clements, John Musker
Cast : Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Temuera Morrison, Rachel House, Nicole Scherzinger, Jemaine Clement, Alan Tudyk
Genre : Animation
Run Time : 1h 54min
Opens : 24 November 2016
Rating : PG

moana-posterDisney heeds the call of the ocean with the studio’s 56th animated feature film. Young Moana (Cravalho), the daughter of chief Tui (Morrison) and Shira (Scherzinger), lives on the Polynesian island of Motonui. Tui insists that his daughter remain on the island to eventually take over the duties of chief, but Moana is unable to resist the beckoning of the sea. Moana’s grandmother Tala (House) encourages the girl’s instincts, much to Tui’s chagrin. When the Motnonui islanders find their livelihoods threatened as coconut trees fail to bear fruit and no fish can be caught, Moana sets out to find the one person who can fix the situation. This is the demigod Maui (Johnson), who can shape-shift into various animals. Accompanied by the none-too-bright rooster Hei Hei (Tudyk), Moana and Maui embark on a journey to return a mystical artefact known as the Heart of Te Fiti. Neither is too fond of the other, but they will need to work together to survive the arduous voyage and defeat the deadly lava goddess Te Kā.

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Moana is directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, Disney animation mainstays whose first film for the studio was 1986’s The Great Mouse Detective. Clements and Musker kick-started the studio’s ‘Renaissance’ period with The Little Mermaid three years later, following that with Aladdin, Hercules, Treasure Planet and The Princess and the Frog. The duo undertook extensive research trips to Polynesian islands, and the effort put into authentically capturing and portraying that rich culture is evident in Moana. The animation is detailed and vibrant, with some of the finest computer-generated water we’ve ever seen playing an important role. The ocean is personified as a living entity, with globules of water reminiscent of The Abyss extending from the surface to greet Moana.

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Moana has been billed as being vastly different from all the other Disney Princess films in the studio’s canon, but for the most part, it sticks to a tried and true Hero’s Journey formula. There’s a MacGuffin in the form of the Heart of Te Fiti jewel, there’s a quest to go on and hurdles to overcome. While there’s a big reveal during the film’s climax, there isn’t too much here that’s very surprising. Moana and Maui’s adventures take on an episodic nature. A thrilling action sequence in which the pair is ambushed by a horde of pygmy pirates called the Kakamora brings Mad Max: Fury Road to mind. There isn’t really an overarching villain, with Te Kā only really making her presence felt during the film’s final battle.

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There are plenty of visual gags that work great, including a moment in which Maui hits a snag with his shape-shifting superpowers. Hei Hei, whom Clements describes as “the dumbest character in the history of Disney animation,” is endlessly amusing. However, several stabs at self-referential humour seem a little jarring. Maui tacitly comments on Moana’s status as a Disney Princess, and there’s a particularly on-the-nose reference to The Little Mermaid. There’s also a joke about Twitter that seems Dreamworks-y.

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One of the film’s biggest selling points is that, as with Brave, there isn’t a love interest in sight. Moana has great agency and isn’t defined solely by her relationships to any of the other characters.15-year-old Cravalho was the last of hundreds of Polynesian women to audition. She makes her feature film acting debut here, bringing an appropriate blend of plucky adventurer and 21st Century teenager to her performance. While Moana is a great character, there are familiar elements to her – she wants adventure in a great wide somewhere, and longs to get out from under the thumb of her overprotective father. It is nice that the character is given a noticeably different body type from the standard svelte Disney princess, and the character’s beauty is showcased in beautifully-lit magic hour scenes.

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Johnson’s trademark charm and charisma is on display as Maui, a self-centred demigod who craves adulation. Maui’s facial expressions appear to be modelled directly on Johnson’s, with the signature ‘people’s eyebrow’ look getting the spotlight. The character isn’t intended to be wholly likeable, and while the relationship between Maui and Moana does get satisfactory development, it can be tedious at times. Musker and Clements have cleverly worked some 2D animation into the film, in the form of Maui’s tattoos. ‘Mini Maui’, who acts as the demigod’s conscience, is a clever way of giving Maui his own sidekick.

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We’re not sure why Alan Tudyk was needed solely to make clucking sound effects, but in any case, we’re glad that Hei Hei and Pua the pig don’t talk. Bit of a shame that the adorable Pua was left behind on Motonui and didn’t join Moana, Maui and Hei Hei on their voyage. House’s Gramma Tala is the stock ‘wise grandmother’ archetype through and through, but her interactions with Moana do provide some of the film’s most emotional moments. Jemaine Clement pops up voicing a colossal crab monster named Tamatoa, in what is probably the film’s low point. It seems like such a calculation, that this is the designated scene-stealing supporting villain. Clement’s Tim Curry-type delivery is all too similar to his performance in the Rio films.

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The aspect of Moana that most disappointed this reviewer is the music. Please put away your pitchforks. Oceanic music group Te Vaka, Mark Mancina and vaunted Broadway impresario Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the film’s music, with Miranda writing the lyrics. They’re all fine, but aren’t as hummable as one would expect. Maui may have his magical fish hook, but these songs seem to lack hooks of their own. The Disney animated canon has produced such memorable tunes as Part of Your World, A Whole New World, Beauty and the Beast and, yes, Let It Go. Alas, nothing in Moana is that instantly catchy and memorable. This reviewer is sure the songs will grow on him, but we were hoping for songs that cling to you immediately.

While Moana delivers grand adventure and meticulously-animated spectacle, it doesn’t hit the heights of sublime poignancy which Disney has proven capable of. It’s a fine quest movie with a few lulls and songs that are okay at best, but lots of kids are bound to gravitate to the spirited heroine.

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Inner Workings, the short film preceding the feature, is delightful and infectiously silly. Stick around for a post-credits gag.

Summary: Splendid animation and a sincerity in putting Polynesian culture on the big screen offset Moana’s formulaic elements and somewhat unmemorable songs.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong