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We’ve strayed a long way from No Man’s Land, folks.
In its own way, Wonder Woman 1984 is an actual no man’s land. Not in the gender sense, as the love of a boyfriend (or “man”) seems to be what super smart and super confident women crave the most here. Rather, it’s meant in the “please don’t go there” sense, and the “why did you have to go there?” sense.
WW84 is the latest from Warner Bros’ DC Cinematic Universe, which has provided a strong opposing array of quality, from the dark depths BvS and the wreck of Justice League, to the colorful heights of Aquaman and the first Wonder Woman - you either really like or really dislike these new DC films. Unfortunately, for WW’s sequel, the needle points ever more than slightly towards the dislike direction. It’s a stunning disappointment, despite the clear effort from many involved to strip out potentially bland action tropes for potentially stronger arcs. It didn’t work so well, but…
The film, set decades after the first, takes place in 1984 Washington D.C., and begins with a jewelry heist at a poppin’ shopping mall. The thieves come off as coked-up and way too over the top, which can be appreciated given the times of the movie. Excess and selfishness are big themes throughout and, when thought on some, the real villains. Of course, Wonder Woman can’t punch themes, so she’s needs something and someone more tangible, like a desperate and out of his depth burglar who has taken kid hostage in a mall. The pace of the escalation in this scene is so brutally quick, and the style so campy, unintended laughter will be expected.
Most of WW84 is like the mall heist, even as settings change and revelations are made. Gal Gadot and Chris Pine are both back as Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor respectively and, while the chemistry between the two is ok, their antics and actions leave much to be desired. Pine spends maybe 80% of his time looking doughy-eyed and in awe, as his spirit has possessed the body of another handsome man and is now taking in the world of his tomorrow. He mostly just looks on and gasps with a smile. Gadot looks on lovingly. When not fighting baddies, this is the extent of their relationship now.
The plot, about a stone that can grant all kinds of wishes, leads to so much chaos in the world of the story, and so much confusion. When everything is in shambles, our President asks for… well, it’s the Cold War, so take your guess. It’s all so comical, and yet so on point. This was the 1980s. This is America. This is humanity. It’s all absurd, but kinda true.
WW84’s shining light comes with Pedro Pascal’s Maxwell Lord and Lucian Perez who plays his son Allistair. Lord is a wannabe tycoon who is supremely unsuccessful. His office building, likely a rental, is hilariously in disrepair with papers on the ground and desks overturned. His life is on the brink, and at one point is even called a loser behind his back and in a huff. Again, another moment paced with hilarity, but thankfully punctuated with brilliant acting and riffing from Pascal and the little Perez, whose father and son arc is the saving grace in all of this. We identify more with Lord’s Twilight Zone experience than with Wonder Woman’s attempt to save the world from him. The emotional punch from his finale is so grand, most will likely forget that the movie isn’t solely about him.
Wonder Woman 1984 produces more jeers than cheers, but at least has some fine flashes of boldness and resonance in fits and bursts. There are literal fireworks, but not much actual wonder. Were they even looking at fireworks during the shoot? Cause it felt empty. Like how most malls are today. If those storefronts and food courts could talk, what would they say? “Why did you come here?” Who knows.
(on HBO MAX and in theaters now)
It’s amazing how when you hear the music in Pixar’s Soul, you’d never think of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. This isn’t a disservice to Reznor and Ross’s scoring prior to this film, but rather a testament. Their work on this animated tale of what makes life so worth living takes us from such great heights to such contemplative places, all with jazzy tunes that strongly match each emotional beat. Again, not that they couldn’t do this before, but the sounds they make here aren’t what most would picture as coming from them.
In a nutshell, this very unexpected aspect is what makes Soul so, well, soulful. It represents the film through and through, from abstractness to clarity.
The film is about a music teacher (Jaime Foxx) who, after an accident just hours before a jazz gig, finds himself in the afterlife, on a space escalator going into a bright light. Our souls are represented as small but fluffy-ish forms that look more like fun candy than ghosts, and the coordinators of this afterlife are friendly one-dimensional etchings that look over everything, or at least try to. Through happenstance and persistence, our teacher finds his way back to Earth, only to be accompanied by a soul in training (Tina Fey), who doesn’t see the point in learning or finding that “spark,” or certain something that makes us all human.
Soul follows in the footsteps of Inside Out with its focus on things that are difficult to express and explain. Here, it’s the bells and whistles of living and feeling. Of going with your flow and of finding the why to match your who. It’s a stunning film to look at and even more spectacular one to absorb. Everything has color, texture, sheen, and life. Every environment, every person, every being. Pixar has made the intangible tangible, even if it’s all speculative.
There’s richness all around, from the jazz clubs to the barbershops to the street pizzerias to the land of lost souls. Everything is so vibrant and full of density and weight, gracefully going a long way in making us comfortable and more importantly open to the ideas expressed. It really is a bit of a shock for a Disney property to take any stance whatsoever on what happens after we die, especially in a time when global markets are considered and even more especially when this release was made via streaming. It’s a gamble for sure, and not necessarily a safe one.
Thankfully, chances were taken, and the daring prevailed.
Soul will go hand in hand with films like Defending Your Life and Groundhog Day, and might just become a classic like those two, in time. Right now, it stands as one of 2020’s best and more important year-end flicks. We could all use a little bit of what this movie is all about, quite frankly. And even if animation of “kids” movies aren’t your thing, listen to the music anyways. It’ll get you moving at least, and shock you at most. ____ is supposed to make you want to dance. Find that ____.
(on Disney+ now)