It has been a strange and challenging year for Hollywood. 2020 might be over, but COVID isn’t. So, like everything else in our lives, it’s impossible to know which necessary change the industry will have to keep. Will the hybrid digital/theatrical model adopted by Warner Brothers for WW84 be the plan for the foreseeable future? Time will tell. We’ll get to Diana. But first, it’s Pixar’s latest. Soul.
Pixar Animation Studios has produced some of the most enduring franchises in the genre – Cars, Toy Story, Monsters Inc. – and a list of stunning one-offs that forever changed the notion of what a cartoon is supposed to be. From Wall-E to Coco to Ratatouille, Pixar is one of the movie business’ few can’t miss brands. They do miss though, don’t they? It’s very rare, and never by much, but it does happen. When Pixar fails to live up to its name, it’s usually because they have either leaned too hard into their merchandising potential or overstuffed the story with intellectual ambiguity. Soul, now available on Disney +, suffers from the latter. On the surface, it’s a story of the search for personal passion and a way back to a meaningful life after an untimely death. Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey are wonderful tour guides through the strange after- and pre-life settings, but the concepts on display are esoteric and oblique enough that I wonder how many kids will understand what they are looking at. It’s all gorgeous, of course, and very moving. But parents should be aware that they won’t be able to doze off during Soul. There’s too much explaining to do. Let’s move on to the Tom Hanks western, News of the World.
News of the World
Tom Hanks has never done a western. I know. It’s hard to believe. He’s a two-time Oscar winner, with a rich, decades-long resume to his credit. But this is his first foray into the American frontier vernacular. The same can be said of director Paul Greengrass, better known for his Jason Bourne movies and the 2013 collaboration with Hanks, Captain Phillips. Both were clearly ready for the saddle and have given us some of their best work with News of the World, in theaters now. It’s hard to find fault with anything Tom Hanks does. He’s one of our greats and this performance will certainly add to the legend. He plays a Civil War veteran who makes his living reading newspapers to people in isolated, hardscrabble towns. When he comes across a young German girl recently rescued from years of captivity, he agrees to deliver her to a distant family branch. Their trials over the course of that journey are all pretty traditional, in genre terms. But Hanks and Berlin-born Helena Zengel are magic together. Their growing interdependence is meted out patiently by Greengrass and ends up every bit as big and beautiful as the landscape they endure. Now it’s time to talk about Wonder Woman.
I love the DC Extended Universe movies. And I fully understand this position requires defending given the popular reputation of those films as generally dour and charmless slogs. I won’t try to make the larger case here. But I will agree that Wonder Woman is the best character of the bunch, and that her 2017 solo debut may have saved the entire endeavor. Directed again by Patty Jenkins and showing now in theaters and on HBO Max, WW84 takes place well before the action of Justice League and serves as an extension of her origin narrative. We find Diana over 60 years later still struggling with the loss of Steve Trevor and facing two classic comic book enemies, Maxwell Lord and The Cheetah. The perfect balance in the first Wonder Woman film between style and substance is off in 1984. Once again, the flashback sequence depicting Diana’s youth on Themyscira is stunning and consequential. But the lovingly curated 80s sets that make up the bulk of our visual context suffer from a story that lacks the same fidelity. Gal Gadot is amazing, as always. But she’s working here with less compelling material. That doesn’t mean WW84 isn’t a lot of fun to watch. It really is. But without a “No Man’s Land” moment to remind us why this particular hero is so essential and inspiring, it feels like the middle chapter from a larger novel.