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

The LEGO® Movie 2 review

THE LEGO MOVIE 2

Director : Mike Mitchell
Cast : Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Tiffany Haddish, Stephanie Beatriz, Alison Brie, Nick Offerman, Charlie Day, Richard Ayoade, Maya Rudolph, Will Ferrell, Jadon Sand, Brooklyn Prince, Noel Fielding
Genre : Animation/Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 1 h 47 mins
Opens : 7 February 2019
Rating : PG

It’s been five years since The LEGO® Movie was released, defying expectations by being a movie made to sell toys that was about so much more than just selling toys. In the meantime, the spin-offs The LEGO Batman Movie and The LEGO Ninjago Movie have graced the big screens, but The LEGO Movie 2 has plenty to live up to.

The LEGO Movie ended with Bricksburg being invaded by aliens from the Systar System. Five years later, Bricksburg has become ravaged by repeated alien invasions, and is now the wasteland Apocalypseburg. Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) is still his cheery self, while the other denizens of Apocalypseburg, including Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), Batman (Will Arnett), Unikitty (Alison Brie) and Metalbeard (Nick Offerman) have become hardened road warriors.

The latest invasion is led by General Sweet Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz), who captures Lucy, Batman, Unikitty, Metalbeard and Benny the 1980-something Space Guy (Charlie Day). Mayhem takes them back to the shape-shifting alien queen of the Systar System, Watevra Wa-Nabi (Tiffany Haddish). Emmet travels to outer space to save his friends, and along the way meets Rex Dangervest (also Pratt), a super-cool spacefaring explorer and crime-fighter who is everything Emmet has ever wanted to be. Lucy suspects that Watevra harbours malice, thinking she has brainwashed the others, but there’s more to this conflict than first appears.

The LEGO Movie was a beautifully-made animated film that explored surprisingly sophisticated ideas, benefitting from the gleeful but good-hearted anarchy that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller bring to their projects. The duo remains onboard as screenwriters for the sequel but pass the director’s chair on to Mike Mitchell. The LEGO Movie 2 is an excellent continuation of the first movie’s plot, delivering a different message from the first film but one that’s also clever and slyly subversive.

The first film ended with the revelation that there was a human world beyond the LEGO world and that the film’s story sprung from the imagination of a young boy named Finn (Jadon Sand). Finn’s sister Bianca (Brooklyn Prince) wants to play with him, with her contribution to Finn’s story represented as an alien invasion. This metatextual knowledge informs the audiences’ interpretation of the story, which comments on gendered toys. Toys are generally marketed to boys one way and to girls another way, and there’s a perception that boys and girls play with toys in different ways.

The LEGO Movie 2 also deals with growing up, taking advantage of the five-year gap between films. The desire to be perceived as tough, cool and well, grown-up is reflected in Emmet’s awe at his newfound ally Rex. Emmet’s cheerful optimism is often taken as naivete; he wishes that he could be tougher and cooler because he thinks that’s what Lucy wants of him. The movie comments on masculinity in an astute way – there are some parallels between Emmet and Hiccup, the protagonist of the How to Train Your Dragon Movies, in that both are not traditionally badass heroes. The LEGO Movie 2 addresses why it’s important that Emmet retains the essence of who he is.

Just like in the first film, there’s the sense of imagination running amok without the movie feeling like a mess. There’s a straightforward narrative trajectory and a twist or two towards the end, but there’s a joke every other minute and the film constantly feels alive. The innumerable pop culture references feel organic rather than mechanically slotted in. The animation by Animal Logic is just as dynamic and eye-catching as in the previous LEGO movies. The photo-realistic CGI animation creates the illusion of stop-motion animation and makes each LEGO brick and element feel tactile.

The returning cast is a joy to hear. From Alison Brie’s mix of innocence and rage as Unikitty to Charlie Day’s unbridled, single-minded enthusiasm as Benny, these are eminently loveable characters. Pratt shines in a dual role, with Rex Dangervest riffing on other Pratt roles including Star-Lord from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Owen Grady from the Jurassic World movies and Joshua Faraday from the Magnificent Seven remake (with a possible nod towards Cowboy Ninja Viking, still in development).

Lucy’s character is shaded in a little more, with the indication that her cool, rebellious exterior is an affectation. Will Arnett’s portrayal of Batman as a self-obsessed loner continues to be amusing, with Batman’s own complex figuring heavily into the plot of this film.

Tiffany Haddish is a hot commodity in the movie business after the success of Girls Trip, lending plenty of personality to Watevra, a mercurial force of nature. Stephanie Beatriz voicing a LEGO character is especially rich because she got her signature eyebrow scar from tripping on a LEGO brick at age 10.

The LEGO Movie 2 hits the sweet spot of being a family film that isn’t condescending to kids and isn’t pandering to adults. There’s something for everybody, and it doesn’t feel forced. There’s surprising poignancy to the message at its heart, but it’s also consistently funny and lively. Because it’s a sequel, it doesn’t have the explosive freshness of the first film, but it’s a satisfying and intelligent follow-up that has plenty to offer.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Boxtrolls

For F*** Magazine

THE BOXTROLLS

Director : Anthony Stacchi, Graham Annable
Cast : Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Elle Fanning, Ben Kingsley, Simon Pegg, Richard Ayoade, Nick Frost, Jared Harris, Tracy Morgan
Genre : Animation
Opens : 11 September 2014
Rating : PG
Running time: 100 mins

We know we’re not alone in mishearing the lyrics to Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit as “here we are now, in containers”. Orgeon-based animation studio Laika brings us the story of loveable, misunderstood beings – in containers. Evil, greedy pest exterminator Archibald Snatcher (Kingsley) misleads the residents of Cheesebridge into believing that they are plagued by subterranean baby-eating monsters called the Boxtrolls. The Boxtrolls, so named because they “wear” cardboard boxes, are really harmless tinkerers who collect discarded knick-knacks to build their own amusing doodads. The Boxtrolls raise a baby, whom they name “Eggs” (Hempstead-Wright), as one of their own. An adolescent Eggs discovers the world above and has to learn how to fit in as a regular boy, the precocious Winnie Portley Rind (Fanning) becoming his friend and teacher. Eggs and Winnie have to convince the populace of Snatcher’s deception to save the Boxtrolls from being completely wiped out as Eggs learns how he came to be cared for by the Boxtrolls.


            Based on Alan Snow’s fantasy novel Here Be Monsters!, The Boxtrolls is Laika’s third feature film, following Coraline and ParaNorman. Short of location filming on the surface of the planet Venus, stop-motion animation has got to be the most painstaking way to make a movie ever. With every movement needing to be tactilely manipulated, every tiny costume hand-stitched, every minute prop machined, it’s easy to see why it’s not a commonly-seen form of animation in theatres today. While the stop-motion work in The Boxtrolls is enhanced with computer animation, everything still has that quaint handmade feel to it. The studio manages to marry the old-fashioned with the cutting edge, using 3D printed parts in their puppets. The effort and care taken to craft Cheesebridge, the Boxtrolls’ domain below and all the inhabitants within is readily apparent and is something moviegoers should cherish, standing in sharp contrast with the production line feel of a film like Planes: Fire and Rescue. So, hats off to directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, lead animator (and Laika CEO) Travis Knight and all the artists and technicians involved.

            Just like the two films before it, Laika has wrangled a wonderful, predominantly British voice cast for The Boxtrolls. Isaac Hempstead-Wright, best known as Bran Stark on Game of Thrones, plays Eggs as a sweet, amiable, slightly lost fish out of water – it’s a good performance, though there are times when he can sound a little stiff. Elle Fanning is entertainingly headstrong and off-kilter as Winnie and follows in her older sister’s footsteps, Dakota Fanning having played the title role in Coraline. It is Ben Kingsley who truly steals the show with his rumbling, sneering turn as Archibald Snatcher. Combined with the grotesque character animation (that allergic reaction Snatcher has looks truly disgusting), Kingsley gives life to a vile, despicable villain who recalls the most memorable baddies from British children’s literature. The Child Catcher from the film and stage adaptation of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang seems to have been a major source of inspiration. Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade are expectedly comical as two philosophical lackeys, with Tracy Morgan as the demented third henchman. Also noteworthy are the veteran voice actors who provide the Boxtrolls’ vocalisations, including experienced animated monster/creature portrayers Steven Blum and Fred Tatasciore.

            The message in The Boxtrolls is one we’ve seen before in family films – “different is good”. However, it is articulated in a sincere, charming manner here. The sweetness and fuzziness is balanced with gross-out moments that will have kids going “eww – but yeah!” There’s also some social commentary, with the aristocrats in charge of running Cheesebridge deciding that a giant wheel of Brie is a better use of their money than a children’s hospital and with Snatcher hankering after a white top hat, a symbol of status and power. While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of visual invention that Coraline did and it is not as emotional and poignant as ParaNorman, that Laika magic is in full force in The Boxtrolls. Stick around for a mid-credits scene in which Mr. Trout (Frost) and Mr. Pickles (Ayoade) wax existential as the truth about the nature of their very being is revealed.


Summary: Laika keeps the flame of stop-motion animation burning bright with a warm, very funny, beautifully-crafted film, served with a side of the weird and gross.
RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong