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Non-Review Review: Soul

Soul is ambitious and well-crafted.

If Onward had been positioned as the populist Pixar film this year, then Soul is a counterproint. It is a prestige piece for the company, something similar to Inside Out or Wall-E. After all, Soul is the latest project from Pete Docter. Docter has been part of the Pixar brain trust since its earliest days, even working on the stories for Toy Story and Toy Story 2. However, Docter’s most recent high-profile work has been his scripting and directing duties on Up and Inside Out, two Pixar films to have been nominated for Best Picture and to win Best Animated Feature.

The afterlife and all that jazz.

The premise of Soul is suitably abstract. Joe Gardner is a music teacher who always dreamed of being a successful stage musician. One day, a former student gets in contact with him, offering a gig with jazz legend Dorethea Williams. Joe manages to land the gig, and is convinced that his fortunes are about to change for good. Naturally, dramatic irony strikes, and Joe finds himself sent to the afterlife. Refusing to accept that his life is over, Joe commits to doing whatever it takes to get back to Earth and live his dream. “I’m not dying today,” he vows. “Not when my life just started.”

Soul deals with very big ideas in a remarkably clever way. The film creates a compelling and fascinating imaginary world that recalls both Riley’s internal life from Inside Out and even the afterlife depicted in Coco. Docter also uses the story as a meditation on weighty subject matter like death, dreams and disillusionment. It’s bold and striking, and the film largely works as a showcase for the company’s imagination. However, Soul does stumble slightly in its final act, pulling its punches ever so slightly as the film reaches its denouement.

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New Podcast! The Escapist Movie Podcast – “An Ever-Escalating Series of Star Wars”

The Escapist have launched a movie podcast, and I was thrilled to join Jack Packard and Elijah Beahm for the sixteenth episode. Obviously, the big news is the slate of announcements from Disney’s Investor Day, including plenty of Star Wars and Marvel announcements, more news about Zack Snyder’s Justice League, and reports about Tom Cruise’s rant on the set of the new Mission: Impossible movie.

You can listen to the episode here, back episodes of the podcast here, click the link below or even listen directly.

New Escapist Column! On “The Mandalorian”, Continuity and Brand Synergy…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. There’s been a lot of Star Wars continuity dropped into the second season of The Mandalorian, with Boba Fett returning to the show following his apparent death in Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, and the live action introduction of characters like Bo Katan and Ahsoka Tano from The Clone Wars.

This is interesting, in large part because the first season of The Mandalorian was comfortable aiming for a broader sort of Star Wars nostalgia, things that looked like existing elements of continuity, rather than things that were existing elements of Star Wars continuity. The second season is much more heavy of Star Wars cross-promotion, populated with references designed to push viewers towards supplementary material. This is a nice illustration of transmedia storytelling in the streaming age, where it isn’t enough to attract fans, services have to retain them.

Streaming services hold on to existing subscribers by adding value, and Disney appear to have figured out that continuity offers its own added value. In its second season, The Mandalorian increasingly feels like an advertisement for the other riches that the streaming service has to offer, and a promise that any subscriber who doesn’t cancel once the season is over will have a treasure trove of archival material to binge at their leisure.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Review: The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special

“The past is the best present,” promised the trailer to The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special. That seems to be the special’s statement of intent.

The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special is the latest example of Disney’s efforts at brand consolidation within the Star Wars franchise, arriving just as the second season of The Mandalorian has begun folding characters from animated series like The Clone Wars and Rebels into live action continuity. The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special is not so much about bringing another marketed part of Star Wars history into the larger tapestry of the Star Wars franchise. Instead, it is effectively about replacing The Star Wars Holiday Special, the famously terrible special from 1978.

“Life Day comes around so fast…”

The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special seems designed to effectively neutralise a lot of the stench of The Star Wars Holiday Special by repurposing the core concept and idea in a manner that is easier to package and distribute without potentially harming the overall brand. It largely works. The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special is a much better production than the earlier iteration. Crucially for Disney, it is also much less embarrassing. The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special is an iteration of that foundational Star Wars text that can stream on Disney+ without harming the brand.

That is perhaps the best thing that can be said about The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special. It is a perfectly serviceable piece of Star Wars content.

The hole issue with modern Star Wars.

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New Podcast! The Escapist Movie Podcast – “Digging Deep on the Manda-lore of The Mandalorian”

The Escapist have launched a movie podcast, and I was thrilled to join Jack Packard for the tenth episode. The big news this week was the return of The Mandalorian, but we also talk a little bit about Ben Wheatley signing on to direct The Meg 2 and Tomb Raider 2, along with Michael B. Jordan making his directorial debut with Creed III.

You can listen to the episode here, back episodes of the podcast here, click the link below or even listen directly.

New Podcast! The Escapist Movie Podcast – “We Finally Have An Excuse To Re-Watch Willow”

The Escapist have launched a movie podcast, and I was thrilled to join Jack Packard for the ninth episode. It was a light enough week for film news, so we talked about Disney’s new content warnings on some its older and more dated classics, the announcement that there was a Willow television series coming, and discussed the latest version of The Witches.

You can listen to the episode here, back episodes of the podcast here, click the link below or even listen directly.

New Podcast! The Escapist Movie Podcast – “The Excellence of The Haunting of Bly Manor”

The Escapist have launched a movie podcast, and I was thrilled to join Jack Packard for the eighth episode. It was a light enough week for film news, so we talked about Disney’s pivot to streaming, the rumours about the upcoming sequel to Spider-Man: Homecoming and Spider-Man: Far From Home, and the joys of The Haunting of Bly Manor.

You can listen to the episode here, back episodes of the podcast here, click the link below or even listen directly.

New Escapist Column! On “TRON: Legacy” as a Disney Princess Film for Boys…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With news that Disney have commissioned another sequel to TRON, it felt like the right time to take a look back at the last attempt to revive the franchise in TRON: Legacy.

TRON: Legacy is a fascinating film, a product of a strange time at Disney – it was between the purchase of Marvel Entertainment and the release of The Avengers, and before the purchase of LucasFilm. So Disney was trying, with films like John Carter, The Lone Ranger and Tomorrowland to craft live action blockbusters that would appeal to young male audiences. Legacy was the earliest of these examples, perhaps the most successful and the most fascinating: in large part because it tried to translate what Disney did so well in animation into live action.

Legacy is effectively an effort to reimagine the classic animated princess story as a big tentpole blockbuster. It doesn’t entirely work, but the results are fascinating. You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Escapist Column! On How “Mulan” is Coming to Disney+, and Studios Are Leaving America Behind…

I published a new piece at The Escapist earlier today. With the news that Mulan will be streaming on Disney+ – for a hefty $30 fee – it seemed worth discussing the real story.

A lot of the discussion around Mulan releasing on Disney+ has revolved around the studio’s plan to charge an additional fee, on top of the subscription, for it. This is reasonable. It is a big shift in the American cinematic market. However, it is only part of the story. The video-on-demand release of Mulan will not be enough to turn a significant profit of itself, and it’s clear that the decision to release Mulan at all is rooted in the fact that the international theatrical market is coming back to life. Disney are banking big on Chinese box office.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Escapist Column! On “Hamilton” Bringing the Theatre Home…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. Hamilton was released earlier in the month on Disney+, and has managed to reignite all manner of debate about the musical.

In the case of the streaming release, one of the most heated discussions concerns the question of whether Hamilton is actually a movie in the conventional sense. This misses the point somewhat, as it’s immediately clear that Hamilton is not packaging the story for audiences, it is instead trying to offer a simulacra of the experience. It’s designed to replicate, as faithfully as possible on screen, the texture and tempo of a theatrical performance. Ironically, this is something that cinema has been trying to do for years, so it’s fascinating to see streaming pull it off so strongly.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.