Soul (2020)

soulThis was a beautiful film. It looked beautiful (even for Pixar, this computer imagery is quite remarkable), it sounded beautiful (an interesting Jazz-infused score from Jon Batiste contrasting with electronic doodling from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) with a captivating script that felt refreshingly adult, not pandering to the young tykes in the audience as much as it might have. My favourite Pixar film remains the quite sublime Ratatouille but Soul runs it a very close second. I was quite taken by this one, and its really such a pity that it didn’t get the theatrical release it deserved, Covid forcing it to be premiered on Disney+ (quite fittingly, I suppose, on Christmas Day). 

Thankfully Disney don’t seem to have nixed physical releases just yet (perhaps seeing it as a way to recoup some of the losses of missing a theatrical distribution, or to get its greedy fingers into the pockets of those of us not yet enticed by its streaming platform) so through this 4K UHD release I’ve finally been able to watch it. I’m sure this is a film I will be watching many times in the future, its really quite wonderful. I’m not entirely sure it sticks the landing, the finale feeling a little ‘off’, but maybe a repeat viewing will dispel any doubts. 

Curiously, I only watched director Pete Docter’s previous Pixar film, Inside Out  once and never returned to it. I was quite surprised to read my old review of Inside Out and find that I really enjoyed it, because my recollection of the film remains pretty vague now (well, it has been five years and countless films under the bridge since), so I was perhaps unfairly a little cautious about Soul. Having seen Inside Out only once perhaps I should watch it again (if only I can find my Blu-ray; five years has a way of burying discs in the unlikeliest of places). Maybe I’ll be posting a re-review here when I manage to find it – at the minute it seems a job for Indiana Jones; I hope I’m not alone in discs disappearing without trace, but at times I can be searching for a film for weeks if not longer. Sometimes they never turn up, but they are in this house SOMEWHERE.

parentadvWhen the credits came up for Soul and I reflected on just how wonderful a film it was, I had the most curious train of thought. Maybe it was the Jon Batiste music score and the warm feeling that the film had infused in me, but I began to think how sad it was that Pixar never worked with Prince on a project. No doubt Prince with his track record (Parent Advisory stickers anyone?) would forever negate any possibility of him teaming up with an outfit as homely as Pixar or Disney, but that explicit content stuff dates pretty way back and Prince had moved on from that in his later years. I just considered what an amazing talent Prince was, and what he might have done musically if afforded an opportunity to work with creatives like those at Pixar or Disney. Or maybe I’m just wondering what might have been, had Prince not been so… Prince, in his later years. Because clearly few musical artists could amaze and frustrate his fans quite as much as Prince often would.

Its possibly because I’ve been reading Neal Karlen’s book about Prince ‘This Thing Called Life, Prince’s Life On and Off the Record’ (which is a very good book by the way) that I had Prince in my head at the time. Its the only explanation I can offer at why such a curious fancy struck me at that moment.

Thanks partly to the vacuum left by Prince’s untimely passing and the music from his vault released over the years since, some fresh perspective has been afforded regards Prince’s prodigious talent, strangeness and failings. I’m sometimes not at all convinced Prince was entirely human, he seemed to be on some other level, like a Da Vinci or a Mozart or a Einstein, and that judging him like the rest of us is unfair (or maybe that’s just a way of letting him off the hook for often being such a jerk).

Karlen’s book is very balanced, the guy certainly knew him as well as most could ever hope to- marvelling at Prince’s talent and rueing those disturbing failings, suggesting that the same talent that made Prince so great perhaps also destroyed him. Prince was a musical savant that was perhaps tortured by that same genius (the size of that vault of unreleased music gradually leaking out an indication of how obsessed he was, particularly in the 1980s with so much great music pouring out of him). There’s a few parts of the book in which Prince remarks about all the voices in his head, the endless creativity at his peak that stopped him getting much sleep… that’s a blessing and a curse, surely. Of course Prince wouldn’t be the only superstar whose success divorced him increasingly from normal life until he became an oddity, a contradiction and almost a self-parody of earlier heights. How can such a genius be such an asshole, is the same as asking how can such a genius NOT be such an asshole?

I don’t know, it was possibly an errant and unwarranted trail of thought, but I just wondered, like a what-if, regards all the disparate talents out there that if combined… like Lennon and McCartney being so greater together in The Beatles than they ever were once separated, or how great a film like Blade Runner became with the timely combination of Scott, Trumbull, Vangelis and all those other talented creatives at their peak at just that moment in time. I just thought how great a visual/musical experience a Pixar film might have been with Prince’s involvement, had he been able to work within a creative team rather than just on his own. It might have been a horrible disaster. But it might have been great.

Which is of course nothing at all do with Pixar’s Soul, so I’ll stop this stream of unwarranted consciousness from harassing your sensibilities any longer. If you haven’t yet seen it, do watch Soul, its a wonderful film.

Incredibles 2 (2018)

incred2There was a time when Pixar films were something really special. I suppose a part of that was the sheer joy and ‘newness’ of watching fully CG-animated movies, but beyond that, the films themselves were often so finely crafted they were almost, well, perfect. I often remarked in reviews that I truly wished that live-action films were given the level of craft and scrutiny that Pixar films were. Every shot, every paragraph of a script, every mannerism exhibited by the CG characters, the story arcs… I think the Pixar filmography reached its zenith with Ratatouille, which is my personal favourite.

But I really did like The Incredibles, which came out way back in 2004 and it has always surprised me that it didn’t get an immediate sequel – perhaps that should be applauded, that we didn’t get a cynical cash-in, but it does leave the weight of expectation for when this sequel eventually arrived rather high and really, a little unfair.

The Incredibles 2 is perfectly fine but I did think it rather inferior to the original. Maybe it’s just so hard to capture lightning in a bottle, maybe it’s that we just see so many CG-animated movies these days- it’s no longer just Pixar cranking these things out, sometimes it feels like everyone is doing it, and maybe it’s unfair but technically they all seem to look very similar. I suppose they are all using the same CG animation software, in just the same way as so much CGI in live-action films have tended to look very ‘samey’. The only way, perhaps, for Pixar to differentiate itself from the pack, so to speak, is for a Pixar film in theme and craft to distinguish itself by being something special and unique- but everyone else seems to have learned the Pixar game and the ensuing familiarity breeds, if not contempt, then perhaps something approaching weariness.

I am likely being unfair expecting Incredibles 2 to be something exciting and new, but it is surely not unfair for me to have hoped for something less familiar and predictable. Nothing surprised me here. Again, I realise it’s just a family animated movie and not something arthouse or leftfield but still, the lack of ambition here was disheartening. Ratatouille was such a breathless joy, the characters, the heart, the humour, the music, it was so perfect, and the original Incredibles movie was a close second to that film. It felt fresh and… well, maybe too many Marvel and DC superhero capers have put paid to that particular quality.

Incredibles 2 was not incredible. That’s the main issue I have. It was perfectly fine and polished but it wasn’t surprising or enthralling or indeed incredible. It felt almost like a rock groups contractoral second album mimicking their previous hit platter. Hardly surprising in itself but still, disappointing.

(That being said, I will qualify this post with a comment that I watched it on a HD stream that was inevitably lacking what a good blu-ray would look and sound like.  This was mostly because I originally intended to buy a 4K UHD version which Disney here in the UK seem to think we are unworthy of, and well, I decided to be stubborn and vote with my wallet so a cheap £1.99 rental is all Disney get out of me. Not the best way to enjoy this movie then and another strange turn in the story of physical media vs streaming/downloads. I really don’t know what Disney are thinking here, but a worrying sign of the times.)

Inside Out (2015)

2016.3: Inside Out (Blu-ray)

inside1Inside Out is without any doubt Pixar’s best film in years, breaking a run of what have been at best pretty average efforts. Of course its hardly fair for every Pixar film to equal Ratatouille (my own personal favourite) or The Incredibles but here the magic is clearly back again; you can sense that boundaries are being pushed again at last and the ready Pixar formula of making popular hits has been left to one side for (most) of the time to enable a few risks to be taken.

The story concerns what goes on in the mind of young Riley, a little girl living happily in Minnesota until her family moves to San Francisco. Emotions of Joy, Anger, Fear, Sadness and Disgust run a control room in Riley’s head, trying to help her lead a fulfilling life and keep her safe and happy but the move to San Francisco proves to be too much even for them. Losing her familiar home, school and friends, Riley increasingly falls into feelings of loneliness and despair, and the efforts of Joy and Sadness to return Riley to a contented state backfire when they are accidentally thrown out of the control room (leaving Anger, Fear and Disgust left to try manage things on their own with disastrous results).

Lost down where long-term memories are left behind and eventually even forgotten completely (memories contained as moving images within spheres of light reminiscent of Doug Trumbull’s Brainstorm), Joy and Sadness have to learn to work together to get back to the control room in another A-B trip/journey of self-discovery so familiar to Pixar fans. This last point perhaps betrays Pixar reverting to formula but there is so much imagination on display here it’s hard to fault. Its funny, its clever, it’s quite touching at times and has a powerful story within it about what makes us ‘us’ and the power of memories (and how we remember them).

inside2Its a great film and really quite magical. This is what Pixar does best when everything seems to just ‘click’ and the animated form manages something live-action couldn’t.  I cannot imagine what Walt Disney himself would have thought had he been able to watch films like this and see what animated features have become at their very best.

As usual I’m left wishing that live-action films could have so much care and craft be given to their scripts as the best Pixar films have. Thats the real magic afterall to these films- yes they look gorgeous but really its the characters and the scripts that are the real achievements.  And kudos to Michael Giacchino for providing the film with another great score; he really seems to have a special knack of supporting these animated features with the fun and pathos of music that intensifies and supports everything we see.