Tag Archives: Disney+

Soul

Joe (Jamie Foxx) has jazz music in his soul and zero dollars in his bank account. His mother likes to brutally remind him of this little fact, and push him toward accepting a permanent position as a middle school music teacher. Just as he’s about to capitulate, an old student calls to offer him a wildly exciting opportunity to play with the wonderful Dorothea Williams. Ms. Williams (Angela Bassett) is impressed with his jazzing, and he’s engaged to play with her later that evening. But he doesn’t make it to later that evening; he dies on his way home.

Understandably, his soul panics on the way to heaven, and he decides to buck the system, running away from heaven or the great beyond or whatever you want to call it, but unable to get back to Earth/life. He hides out in a mentorship program instead, posing as a mentor soul assigned to help new souls find their spark. Soul #22 (Tina Fey) has been mentored by the very best for eons but has yet to find her spark. In fact, she expects that life is kind of a buzzkill, and she’s actively resisting it. Joe runs through all the obvious things like music and food, but it’s not until they sneak back down to Earth that things really start to gel for her. Of course, it probably helps that she can finally experience things in a human body, one that moves to music and tastes food and is delighted by the strange wonders of the human world. One small hiccup: in the melee, 22 took over Joe’s body, and Joe’s soul…ended up in a cat. Joe is desperate to make the Dorothea gig, but what use is it if he’s a cat? And 22 is deeply distracted by pretty much every single thing she encounters. She’s finally found her spark, but the problem is, she kind of promised it to Joe. You need a spark to get to Earth permanently, and taking 22’s is Joe’s only option. And until very recently, 22 had no use for a spark and no interest in life. She promised it freely. But now…well, what if 22 wants it too?

This movie is beautiful and tragic because life is beautiful and tragic. It is everything you want from a movie and nothing you expect from a cartoon – except it’s Pixar, so you dare to hope. They’ve done it before. They’ve done it again.

In talking about death, Soul is actually discussing how to live. Joe believes that his life will be fulfilled by achieving his dream of performing jazz, but 22 teaches him there’s plenty of pleasure and wonder to be found in simply living, in taking the time to look, listen, and learn. 22’s naivety and newness to the world inspires Joe to slow down and take a look around as well.

Directors Pete Docter and Kemp Powers are not afraid to embrace the surreal and the intangible when examining the life well-lived, or to ask children to engage in a little introspection. A simple premise allows for a wonderful complexity of ideas embodying Joe’s existential crisis – which may be putting it mildly considering he’s dead and doesn’t want to be. But this spiritual scrutiny is able to include both the joy and the sadness, the fear, regret, obsession, insecurity, and the inspiration, ambition, passion, and life-affirming facets of personal philosophy because Pixar’s trademark playfulness makes it all feel non-threatening and really rather fun.

The voices are well-cast, the entities are well-designed, the movie looks amazing, but most important, it just feels good. It feels right, it feels warm, it feels like a hug from your past self to your future self, and I can’t think of a more perfect (cinematic) way to end the year.

Safety

Safety plays it pretty safe as far as inspirational sports movies go. Following in the footsteps of Remember The Titans or The Blindside, Safety tells the true story of a freshman college football player who’s got a lot more on his plate than just practice.

Ray (Jay Reeves) is just like any other athlete at Clemson University, until things back home start to fall apart. His mother is an addict, and little brother Fahmarr (Thaddeus J. Mixson) has been alone since her most recent arrest. And things are about to get worse: the good news is, Ray’s mom is going on to a rehab facility to get help. Bad news? That leaves Fahmarr alone, and he’s just a kid. There’s no one else to take him, so it’s either a group home, or…. Or Ray decides to sneak him unto campus where he secretly cares for him for the next month or so, just barely managing between class, football, and childcare, plus the burden of a pretty big secret.

Remember that Ray McElrathbey was a real kid who took on the raising of his younger brother while attending school on a full sports scholarship. He couldn’t really afford to risk his full ride by becoming distracted, nor could he afford to risk his brother’s life. For a while he manages both, but eventually his school and those darn NCAA folks who are sticklers for rules.

Safety skirts around its darker corners, focusing instead on the importance of family and community; if you were feeling cynical you might call it sanitized, but if you were feeling generous of heart you might just find it admirable for its sense of duty, sacrifice, support, and good old fashioned taking care of each other. It’s formulaic and completely unsurprising but it’s also the kind of heart warming stuff that’s hard to resist, especially around the holidays. Director Reginald Hudlin knows he’s got a good story, and tells it in a low-frills, straight forward kind of way, and if it’s a little saccharine, well, we could all use a little extra sweetness this year, couldn’t we?

Godmothered

Eleanor (Jillian Bell) is the youngest trainee and the only person who’s bothered to apply in decades; fairy godmothering just isn’t what it used to be. But head mistress Moira (Jane Curtin) keeps on teaching the same tried and true formula: 1. glittery gown 2. true love 3. happily ever after. Except humans stopped believing in ‘happily ever after’ a long time ago. No fairy godmother has been on assignment in years – the school’s about to close, the godmothers to be retrained as tooth fairies. Eleanor is devastated. Godmothering is all she’s ever wanted to do and now she’ll never even get the chance to start, so she takes matters into her own hands and finds a neglected assignment, a request for a fairy godmother that was never granted. She heads down to earth to fulfill the godmothering duties, and hopefully prove that godmothers are still in demand.

Of course, when she eventually finds herself in Boston, she finds not a 10 year old girl, but a full grown woman named Mackenzie (Isla Fisher) (apparently the letter was a little dated). What a disaster: in what way could a single mother in a dead end job possibly need godmothering? Well, both Mackenzie and Eleanor are about to find out because Eleanor refuses to go back to the motherland a failure.

Godmothered doesn’t exactly skewer the popular Disney fairy godmother formula, but it expands on what was traditionally a pretty narrow definition of happily ever after. Welcome to the modernization of Disney. They’ve been rehabbing their image and redefining the princess genre in movies like Frozen and even Ralph Breaks The Internet. Godmothered asks whether magic, wishes, and belief still have a place in modern society, and if not, what should take their place. It doesn’t quite go all the way as a ‘message’ movie but it does get some pretty great mileage out of good old-fashioned kindness and cooperation, which never go out of style.

Eleanor is charming as a fish out of water, a magical being in the land of humans for the first time, not unlike Enchanted Giselle or even Elf’s Buddy the Elf. Jillian Bell is simply enchanting, more grounded than flighty, but with enough fairy dust on her performance to give her wings. Director Sharon Maguire delivers a warm and feel-good story that is perfect for cozy family viewing.

Black Beauty (2020)

Black Beauty has been adapted many times, but in Ashley Avis’ movie, Black Beauty is female, and so is the little girl who loves her.

When we meet Black Beauty (voiced by Kate Winslet), she is a young Mustang running wild and free, just starting to be wary of new animals encroaching upon the land. Not wary enough, as it turns out; Black Beauty is captured and sent to live in a stable so she can be broken and sold. John (Iain Glen) who runs the stables and trains the horses isn’t a bad man, and he’s soon joined by his orphaned niece Jo (Mackenzie Foy). Jo is not your classic Horse Girl; in fact, she’s never ridden. But she must see a bit of herself in Black Beauty, who is also adjusting to new surroundings having just lost her parents and her home. Their bond is immediate and undeniable. Jo insists not on breaking Beauty, but on “partnering” her, based on friendship , respect, and gentleness. But the stables are a business, and Beauty is leased out to a wealthy family whose daughter is training to be competitive in dressage. Georgina (Fern Deacon) isn’t a natural horsewoman but makes up for what she lacks with spurs and whips. She is not kind to Beauty (nor to Jo), but sadly nor is she the worst owner that Black Beauty will encounter in her life.

Told from Black Beauty’s unique perspective (don’t worry, she’s not a talking horse, we merely hear her thoughts voiced by Winslet), we follow her as she’s transferred from home to home, owner to owner, many more pitiful or abusive than the last. Anna Sewell’s wildly popular novel from many moons ago opened people’s eyes to the mistreatment of horses, but it’s clear from Avis’ adaptation that things have not changed nearly enough for horses in nearly 150 years. Set in various modern American environments, Black beauty knows pain, overwork, and perhaps worse still, loneliness. The bond she shared with Jo endures and holding her memory in her heart is the only reason Beauty has the strength to go on.

I didn’t expect to like Black Beauty as much as I did. It doesn’t feel emotionally manipulative – Black Beauty is a horse, and though we inevitably anthropomorphize her, she isn’t asking to be pitied. But her indominable spirit is enviable and some pretty cinematography, we feel a sort of empathy, a sort of kinship with animals of all kinds, and an emotional attachment to Beauty herself, whose loyalty and resilience remind us of the four-legged family members in our own homes. Not without its flaws, Black Beauty is still a worthy version for 2020 audiences and a nice little treat on Disney+.

Z-O-M-B-I-E-S 2

What more really needs to be said? Zed and his friends effected a zombie revolution in the last film, achieving equality for their people. It seemed like things in the sister communities of Seabrook and Zombietown were on the up and up – but what is a sequel without a new and terrible conflict?

Werewolves!

Turns out, Seabrook legend has “always” told of werewolves in the forest, but they’ve only chosen now to reveal themselves. Of course, Seabrook immediately forgets all the important lessons it learned last time and re-enacts the “monster laws,” the worst of which, in Zed’s (Milo Manheim) biased opinion, his inability to take cheerleader Addison (Meg Donnelly) to prom (to “prawn” actually, Seabrook students are the “Shrimps”). The situation, or Zed’s situation anyway, is only exacerbated when werewolf Wyatt (Pearce Joza) pays a little too much attention to his girl, trying to steal Addison away to their pack.

It’s very convenient to the plot how quickly humans abandon lessons of the past and yet it is also extremely and depressingly true to life. People are always afraid of what’s different, and they let fear blind them to the things that unite them. Even the zombies, themselves oppressed in the very recent past, are not sympathetic to their plight but eager to to leverage a new underclass to bolster their own status. It is a perfect allegory for the American class system, but surprising to find it in a Disney produced movie for tweens about prom and cheerleading.

Like the first one, production design on Z-O-M-B-I-E-S 2 is A-M-A-Z-E-B-A-L-L-S. The sets and the costumes have incredible theming that really emphasize the story. I particularly enjoyed the glitter fog, or as they called it, colloidal silver – you know, for subduing werewolves. These are the touches that force me to like a movie that is pure bubblegum and lollipops.

The whole cast is back, including Trevor Tordjman, Kylee Russell, Carla Jeffery, and James Godfrey from the first film, and newcomers Chandler Kinney and Ariel Martin. They’re talented, they’re all talented, even Tordjman, who remains my one beef. He’s just a little too “on.” Everyone else is making a movie, and he’s playing to the back of the house of a children’s theatre, hammy and exaggerated.

I still say these are surprisingly tolerable movies, definitely a fun time for kids to watch with parents. The monsters make it Halloweeny but the singing and dancing and gelato carts make it harmless with a side of sweet messaging.

We’ve been depending on generation Z to save us, but if not them, generation Z(ed) seems up to the task. Armed with pompoms and dance battles, they’re a lot more prepared for change than we’ve been. Zombies 2024.

Z-O-M-B-I-E-S

Seabrook is a perfectly planned community, where everyone is uniformly beautiful and bright. Fifty years ago, there was an accident involving lime soda at the local power plant, unleashing a green haze that turned people into zombies. Seabrook survivors erected a barrier to keep themselves save, and it has lived securely beside Zombietown ever since.

The ensuing 50 years have harkened 50 years of zombie improvements; they now wear a device on their wrists that emits a soothing electromagnetic pulse that keeps them from eating brains (it probably counts their steps as well). Zombies are are now like anyone else, though they are easily identified thanks to green hair and a pale pallor. Unfortunately, zombie phobia is rampant in the Stepford-like community of Seabrook, and the division is still pretty strict. Zombies wear uniforms, work the worst jobs, aren’t allowed to keep pets, etc, etc. Today, however, Zed (Milo Manheim), a teenage zombie, is super pumped because it’s the first day of school and for the first time, zombies are allowed to attend human school. He shouldn’t be surprised that the school is still very much segregated, with the zombies all relegated to the dank basement and not allowed to mix with human kids or join extra-curriculars. Luckily Zed’s got a zombie edge when it comes to football, and the Seabrook Shrimps are utterly awful without him. Can one zombie jock heal the hearts and prejudices of a xenophobic town? With a little help from his zombie friends and one brave, blonde cheerleader named Addison (Meg Donnelly), yes. Yes they can.

This little ditty is available on Disney+ and will make for some fun, family friendly viewing this Halloween.

Meanwhile, I’m a little embarrassed to say that I really liked this film myself. It’s corny and earnest as heck, but it’s also extremely well put together. I never saw High School Musical, but I imagine this is not unlike it, only half the kids are zombies.

Someone production-designed the heck out of this thing. That person is Mark Hofeling, and he deserves an awful lot of credit. The Seabrook side looks like a Taylor Swift music video and the Zombietown half looks like a Katy Perry video, and for the first time in my life, I mean that as a compliment. Costumes by Rita McGhee follow the aesthetic brilliantly (Sean even commented on the pastel football uniforms), so when they all break out into dance, the effect is rather pleasing. Oh did I mention it was also a musical? And the songs aren’t bad – not worse than a lot of what plays on the radio, anyway. The choreography’s decent too, more current and involved than I would have predicted from a Disney movie. The young cast (Manheim, Donnelly, Trevor Tordjman, Kylee Russell) are talented and charming and quite polished. And the script isn’t terrible either. Or, it’s terrible in a self-aware way, leaning extra hard on archetypes but making use of them and landing a few clever quips along the way.

Do I have a school girl crush on this movie or what? It’s really not meant for adults and I would never inflict this on anyone other than Sean. It’s a living, breathing cupcake of a movie and I guess I was in the mood for dessert.

Secret Society of Second-Born Royals

A bunch of teenagers get sent to summer school and find they have something in common: they’re all second-born royals. Their older siblings are destined to inherit thrones while they are the spares, side-lined and over-looked. Not this time. This time, teacher James (Skylar Astin) tells them they’ve all been sent here under false premises; this isn’t summer school, it’s a training academy designed to awaken their super powers.

Super powers? You heard right. They’re just as surprised as anyone, but the story checks out: Sam (Peyton Elizabeth Lee) has super senses, Tuma (Niles Fitch) can get anyone to obey him, Roxana (Olivia Deeble) can turn invisible, Matteo (Faly Rakotohavana) can command insects, and January (Isabella Blake-Thomas) can borrow anyone else’s super power by touching them.

This movie is not meant for adults but tween girls 8-12 should be in heaven. It basically borrows from the Netflix blueprint for princess-themed romantic movies that usually air around Christmas with a dash of Artemis Fowl with a light Hamlet twist. Rebellious teenagers, royal jewels, family secrets, cute boys, and what passes for rock and roll these days: what more could a girl possibly want?

It’s definitely wholesome enough for family viewing and while parents probably won’t enjoy it, it’s also not the worst thing to get stuck watching. There’s a training montage that rivals popular game show The Floor Is Lava, sparkling tiaras and the plump little pillows they sit on, some truly terrible CGI, a few surprisingly bottom-of-the-barrel super powers, royalty-free jamming, a dead dad, an extremely brief cameo from Prince Harry, a diverse cast of talented kids, and a dog named Charlie.

Secret Society of Second-Born Royals is deeply inoffensive and perfect for family viewing. Find it on Disney+.

Mulan

The reason why this Mulan live-action movie is better than its Disney predecessors is that it unyokes itself from the animated film and doesn’t attempt a scene-by-scene remake. The story is similar, but is more faithful to the Ballad of Mulan myth, with fewer Disney-fications. While Cinderella and Beauty & the Beast were meant to appeal to the little girls who watched and loved the originals, now grown up and ready to be dazzled all over again, they inevitably disappointed because you can’t recapture that magic in a bottle. Mulan doesn’t try. It’s not made for the little girls we used to be, but for modern audiences used to stunning cinematography and well-choreographed action. The movie doesn’t seek to appease our inner princesses but to waken our inner warriors. Don’t compare this to the animated Mulan, compare it to Wonder Woman, Atomic Blonde, Tomb Raider, Captain Marvel, Rogue One.

Mulan (Yifei Liu) is a spirited young woman whose childhood antics were somewhat indulged by her family but now that she’s of marrying age, she needs to dampen that fire in order to make an auspicious match and bring honour to her family. That is a woman’s place, a daughter’s place: honour through a good marriage and by being a quiet, elegant, composed, invisible wife. Her chi needs to be hidden away; it is meant for warriors, not women. But you know how this story goes. When the enemy Rouran threaten the Chinese empire, each family must send a man to fight, and since Mulan’s father has no sons, he himself is the only option, even though he’s disabled from the last war. To save him, Mulan steals away in the night, and poses as a man to take her family’s place in the Chinese army.

Niki Caro’s Mulan looks slick as hell. The colours are fantastic, the reds so vivid they’re nearly engorged, Mandy Walker’s cinematography bringing lush, diverse landscapes into sharp focus.

I love how grounded in history this movie felt; the animated film tread rather lightly on the reality of Mulan’s every day life, but here her mother reminds her (and us) of the dire consequences should her spunk be taken the wrong way, that such a woman would swiftly be labelled a witch and put to death.

At boot camp, sheltered Mulan is bunking among rough young soldiers. They do not sing their way through a snappy montage of training, they push their bodies to the limit trying to get battle-ready in time to save their country and their emperor. Friendships are made but they are also tested. This is not some summer camp – these young men know that their lives will soon be on the line, and they will need to count on each other in order to survive not to mention succeed.

The action sequences are stunning. Clearly Yifei Liu and company are the real deal, expertly trained and extremely convincing. Any movie that has the guts to bench Jet Li as the emperor and let others perform the martial arts had better bring the goods, and Mulan does. It’s not breaking new ground, but it’s well-executed and exciting to watch.

My one complaint is that the movie’s so intent on delivering incredible visuals and epic battle scenes, it devotes precious little time to developing its characters. We know that Mulan is fiesty and brave, but little else. We know even less of the others. Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) is a fierce leader and knows raw talent when he sees it but if he has any life or thoughts outside of war we aren’t privy. If Honghui (Yoson An) is surprised by the intimate nature of his friendship with the new, very handsome, very soft-featured soldier, he doesn’t show it, or shy away from it. He doesn’t mention it at all. And the other soldiers are just caricatures, filling up the ranks. But I think the real loss is in our villains, a duo didn’t inspire as much panic as their potential first teased. The one is just your run of the mill bad guy – his want and his greed are in opposition to China’s, and he’s pretty ruthless in his pursuit, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before, in movies and in life. The other is by far the more interesting and I wish we could have known more of her, particularly because the final showdown between herself and Mulan is low-key amazing and I think understanding her a little better would only have strengthened that moment. Still, 1998’s Mulan had a villain, a Hun named Shan Yu, with eyes as black as his soul, who inspired not mere fear but terror, and we didn’t know anything about him. True, I was a child then, but I’ve rewatched it recently, and his menace is chilling, even without much context.

I enjoyed the 2020 Mulan. The cast was great. The film was incredibly shot and almost ridiculously beautiful. It evokes just enough of the first film through detail and musical cues. It was a treat, a rarity among Disney remakes, one that actually justifies its existence by incorporating the best of the first but improves upon it too, gives it a more mature and serious tone, one befitting a warrior, and that’s exactly what she is.

Phineas and Ferb the Movie: Candace Against the Universe

I didn’t know my Phineas from my Ferb until about 20 minutes ago. No, I’m exagerating. I still can’t tell them apart. I vaguely knew they existed but had assumed the teal bird was either Phineas or perhaps Ferb. He’s not. Turns out he’s called Perry the Platypus, so apparently he’s not even a bird. As far as Phineas and Ferb (two human children, step-brothers) know, Perry is just the family pet, but he’s actually been placed in the family as a secret agent, which is old news if you’re a fan of the show – nearly every episode’s b-plot involves Perry trying to foil mad scientist Dr. Heinz Doofenschmirtz’s latest evil scheme. The main plot usually consists of Phineas and Ferb embarking on some grandiose project – like building a roller coaster in their backyard – which annoys the heck out of big sister Candace, and of which all evidence is improbably erased before she can alert their parents. This movie, it would seem, is when poor Candace finally gets her due, not to mention a starring role (although have no fear: Phineas, Ferb, and even Perry are all along for the ride).

If, like me, you’d never seen the show, worry not, because Candace basically sums up her fraught history with Phineas and Ferb in a cute opening musical number. Which brings me to the next point: Phineas and Ferb is somehow an animated musical comedy. That’s ambitious!

Anyway, poor Candace is usually portrayed as controlling and a tattletale, but I bet you’d feel kind of annoyed if you little brothers were always getting away with murder in the backyard. This is the film that finally reveals that she’s mostly been misunderstood. She’s not mean. She doesn’t hate them. She just feels excluded. So not only will Phineas and Ferb’s project today involve her, she’s actually its inspiration: Phineas and Ferb are going to rescue their sister from an alien abduction!

Yeah, I may have buried the lead. The stepbrothers witness her abduction and recruit Isabella, Baljeet and Buford to build a portal which fails to bring them to the planet where she’s been taken and instead redirects them to Dr. Heinz Doofenschmirtz’s lab, where he too was attempting to build a portal. So instead they board the evil doctor’s spaceship and head toward outer space, with Perry the Platypus secretly tagging along.

But Candace is not having the very bad day you might expect from the recent victim of an alien invasion. She’s bonding with her captor, who commiserates with her hardships (she also has 2 brothers, ugh), and who makes her feel special for carrying the rare element Remarkalonium.

Will the brothers find Candace before extraction takes place? And if they do – will she even want to leave? And will their parents finally catch them in the act?

The movie was surprisingly accessible to a first-time viewer, and was also surprisingly well-written. A stand-alone movie is planned for a theatrical release, but this movie, meant to have taken place before the series ended, was written specifically for Disney+ where it will find its fans the quickest. And that’s who this movie is really for, after all: the people who have loved and supported it since day one. The people, young and old alike, who miss seeing their favourite characters in new adventures. Fans of the show will be delighted with the film, which expands the Phineas and Ferb universe while working in all the things you loved about the original series.

Phineas and Ferb the Movie: Candace Against the Universe features the voice work of Vincent Martella, Ashley Tisdale, Dan Povenmire, David Errigo Jr., Alyson Stoner, Maulik Pancholy, Bobby Gaylor, Ali Wong, Dee Bradley Baker, Wayne Brady, Olivia Olson, Thomas Middleditch, Diedrich Bader, Caroline Rhea, Tiffany Haddish, John O’Hurley, Weird Al Yankovic, and more besides, but my fingers are cramping. It’s a good mix of new and old, which is what you want in a nostalgia-driven sequel. And what better way to indulge your youthful whim than to spend a Saturday morning in pajamas, with a heaping bowl full of sugary cereal, and your subscription to Disney+.