Upon finding herself in The Boiling Isles, Luz Nocera soon found herself accumulating something she didn’t have back home: friends.
Out of all of them, one who seemed to be used mainly for comic relief in season 1 was Gus, a human-world obsessed witch whose main expertise was illusion magic.
Continuing the streak of learning a little more about some characters this season, episode 5 chooses to focus mainly on him.
After accidentally getting Willow wounded, Gus begins to question himself and his illusion powers. Things take an unexpected turn when he encounters a group of kids from Glandus High, who invite him along on a quest to help them obtain some ancient relics.
Meanwhile, Luz continues her search to try and find information that may get her back to her own world. A diary in the library might hold the key…and it just so happens that Amity Blight may be able to help locate it.
As Season 2 began, I did hope we’d get to learn a little more about Gus. This episode definitely reveals some more about him, though I was hoping some revelations would have been done alongside his friends like Luz and Willow.
As the “A” plot of this episode, we find out a bit more about what Gus is capable of, as well as just where his knowledge and principles lie. Plus, we get to see him wield glyph-magic (courtesy of Luz, who wishes to help him impress the other kids).
The group from Glandus is led by a girl named Bria (voiced by Felicia Day), and gives us a little more insight into the student body of Hexside’s rival school. Her associates Gavin and Angmar seem to mainly be her followers, making them feel like they are taking up the comedic slack that Gus would have provided.
A most unexpected surprise was the reappearance of Mattholomule, a student we last saw causing trouble for Gus back in Season 1. It turns out Mattholomule has some prior history with Glandus, and we get a little more on his backstory as well (though he’s still a jerk).
For the “B” plot, Luz meeting Amity at the library to try and find more information about a human who once lived on the isles, feels a little odd that it is not the main storyline.
The library sub-story brought back memories of my favorite season 1 episode, Lost in Language. Here however, the journey deeper into the library serves as a chance for Luz and Amity to have some time together, while also continuing a theme of unease between them in regards to recent revelations.
While some feel that Amity is growing into her feelings that go beyond being just friends with Luz, it feels like some of the focus this season may be on what Luz thinks. Last season saw her really wanting to be friends with Amity, but it feels like she is currently struggling with feelings of her own.
There also are some fun minor appearances by Amity’s older siblings, Edric and Emery, with Emery providing some sisterly help when Amity confesses a few things.
Some areas of the episodes storytelling, did seem to get a little sloppy. The opening happens after Willow’s injury, and it feels like a shoehorned “exposition dump” as the episode tries to quickly shift us into our main focus on Gus. There also is a rather convenient way in which illusion magic comes into play, but I wish it wouldn’t have felt as convenient as we see. It seems implied that what Gus excels in, is considered the weakest of the different coven magics.
Luz and Amity’s story also has some rather convenient resolutions, but a lot of what is done here definitely kept my attention. This is their first real interaction in awhile, and it feels like their story is much stronger than Gus’. Much like episode 2 this season, we get a moment with Amity that is sure to be a real crowd-pleaser for the show’s fans, and feels more well-earned than some reveals from this season’s second episode.
Final Grade: B
With each new episode of The Owl House in Season 2, creator Dana Terrace opens up the world of The Boiling Isles even more.
We’ve already learned more about King and Amity Blight, but in this episode, we get a little more insight into The Clawthorne sisters, Eda and Lilith.
While Luz continues to try and find a way back to the human realm, the Owl House is thrown into turmoil when Eda and Lilith’s mother Gwendolyn Clawthorne shows up.
Eda’s mother claims she has found a way to cure her daughter’s curse, but Eda isn’t so accepting of her mother’s good intentions. This leads to Luz taking an interest in helping Gwendolyn, figuring Eda is just being stubborn.
So far this season, the series seems to enjoy hitting us with stuff hard-and-fast. We just got off a major revelation with King regarding his origins, and now we’re leaning into past information about Eda and her family.
Right out of the gate, Gwendolyn seems to be well-depicted as a concerned parent. We get to see what she was like in a flashback, along with her current incarnation as a “mother knows best” kind of witch. There’s something very “real” about the way she’s depicted, especially given how Eda claims she’s been coming around on a yearly basis to try and cure her (I think most will feel like they too have experienced Eda’s “parental frustration”).
The narrative also paints an intersting picture regarding how the Clawthorne sisters were treated by their mother. Most notable is there seems to be a tinge of of jealousy on Lilith’s part, as feelings surface that she feels her mother doted on Eda more than her. I would have liked to have seen some more development on this, but this information gets shoved down into the smaller “B” plot of the episode.
Much of the “A” plot revolves around Luz interacting with Gwendolyn, as the two work together to cure Eda. However, Luz has some misgivings about the methods they are using, leading to an interesting conundrum. Even though this is fantasy, it feels decidedly “real-world” in the depiction of how a parent’s desperation can cause them to lose focus.
After the last episode felt like The Owl House was getting its balance back, this episode feels like it’s a bit lopsided in its storytelling. The introduction of Gwendolyn is notable, but it feels like the episode pushes a little too much on some gags, when it might have used some of that time to give us some more moments between the sisters talking about their mother.
That isn’t to say there isn’t some good stuff given out (just not enough to make the episode better in my opinion). The episode does lean into a bit of horror-style visuals in places (notably where Eda goes mentally when the curse takes over her body). There also seem to be bits of information that may be hinting at things to come in future episodes (notably one that will surely make many persons jaws drop!).
Final Grade: B
Rated PG for rude humor, language, some thematic elements and brief violence.
One name at PIXAR Animation Studios that has stuck in my mind over the years, is Enrico Cassarosa. Hailing from Italy, he has been a story artist at the studio for some time, and even directed their 2012 animated short, La Luna.
Cassarosa also has a distinctive drawing style that borrows from the designs of Japan’s Hayao Miyazaki, in numerous pencil and watercolor works he has done over the years.
Needless to say, when I heard he was going to be directing a film for the studio (in a style that seemed to shake things up from the norm), I was definitely looking forward to seeing what he had come up with.
Close to the seaside community of Portorosso in Italy, liveS a small community of sea monsters. One of them is Luca, a well-behaved kid, who slowly grows enchanted with the world above when he befriends another young monster named Alberto.
Wanting to learn more about the world up above, the two head off on their own to find adventure in the nearby village, where they have to stay dry to appear human…lest the monster-wary villagers figure out what they are.
After watching Luca, a thought went through my mind: “Given how we hold Pixar films to such a high standard, is it okay for a film of theirs to just be…good?”
Luca is a film that does not go as deep as past films such as Ratatouille or Soul. In some respects, it reminded me of a film I rather enjoy that a lot of people despise: Cars 2. That film was one that still tried to be entertaining, while also having some emotional content to it. In fact, One has to wonder if this style of filmmaking may be something we will see from the studio going forward (maybe “good” films can stave off more sequels like Toy Story 5 or The Incredibles 3?).
The simplicity of Luca is quite notable. Aside from being sea monsters, Luca and Alberto are pretty ordinary. Luca is the kid who is curious, but just needs someone to give him a shove, which (first) comes in the form of Alberto. Naturally, since Alberto has adapted to land for some time, it is a given that Luca believes almost everything that comes out of his mouth (like claiming the lights in the night sky are fish).
Another influence on Luca comes in the form of Giulia Marcovaldo (Emma Berman) a chatty redhead who helps her father Massimo (Marco Barricelli) at the local pescaria. She recognizes that the two boys seem “out-of-place” in the village, and does her best to make them feel welcome. She also welcomes their interest in entering the local Portorosso Cup triathlon, when the boys feel it may win them the means to acquire a Vespa scooter to see more of the human world.
Naturally, any group of kids needs someone to rain on their parade, and this is where Ercole Visconti (Saverio Raimondo) comes in.
With Ercole, it feels like a long time since we have had a villain character that was just a bullying jerk in a Pixar film. He doesn’t play as prominent a role, but he’s somewhat like Portorosso’s Gaston, who seems to hold quite a bit of sway over the town, though we are never privy as to how or why (maybe his parents hold a prominent place in Portorosso’s social hierarchy?). He does have a few funny moments, but an attitude that will make many eager to see him get some of what he dishes out.
Even with some storytelling areas that seem familiar, there are places in the film that surprised me by not going for the easy way out.
It does help that there is a simplicity to the storytelling that focuses mainly on the kid characters, but never makes their problems too insurmountable. At times, it feels like the film could have been adapted from a picture book in how the story is woven together. Even with so many people in the village, the film rarely strays from a set number of characters to focus on.
Where the film falters at times, seems to be as a result of some of the supporting cast, such as Luca’s parents. The film tries to mine some humor out of them, but it often feels like they don’t necessarily flow well with the rhythm of the story as it moves along.
There also is a theme of accepting others even if they are weird or strange, but it feels like this message gets somewhat buried in the storytelling. The film even attempts to shoehorn in a revelation around this train of thought, but it just doesn’t feel natural.
One area that is never a place for criticism, is in the crafting of the environments of the film. There’s a rich coloration both below and above the sea. We get dazzling blue hues in the water, and bright sunny yellows throughout the hills and town, that feel warm and inviting.
There are also moments where the film dips into some flights of fancy that the boys have. From leaping Vespas to floating planets, the daydreams are cute little moments, but one could almost see them being put into a short-subject of their own.
Along with channeling Miyazaki-esque stylings, one can’t help but feel like Cassarosa has made something that feels akin to Studio Ghibli films like Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Porco Rosso. Luca definitely won’t crack the top 5 for most peoples favorite Pixar films, but it’s got a charm to it that makes it hard to dismiss.
Final Grade: B
With the second season release of The Owl House, each of the episodes we have so far encountered, have filled us in a little more on some characters.
From Eda Clawthorne’s sister Lilith to Amity Blight’s parents, our knowledge has been expanded upon in several ways.
With their latest episode, the show sheds some light on the backstory of one of its main characters.
Hearing King prattle on about his past and being “The King of Demons,” Lilith feels certain that the little creature’s claims are nothing but a story.
Determined to prove her wrong, King takes Lilith, Luz, and Hooty to a mysterious island…an island that might hold an even more terrifying secret.
After his rather low-key appearance in the season two opener, it is nice to see King being a bit more of his typical self, even if some moments feel a little “forced.” Being around Luz has definitely “tamed” him, and while he can be bombastic at times, this episode is so far his most emotional.
Even though this episode is largely King’s, Luz has some notable moments. We see that she has continued to expand on her research of glyph-magic, and how she has even found a way to make new spells. There are also moments where we see how she tries to be a good friend to King, notably in how she can handle his demands and claims.
One exciting thing about the episode is a return to that feeling of exploring some strange new environment like in past episodes. The ruins encountered here feel like there is quite a bit to be deciphered, let alone the acknowledgement by Lilith that her knowledge of the Boiling Isles, mysteriously does not include the island. It is also notable that the creepy atmosphere is helped along by the music played over the scenes.
Speaking of Lilith, The episode also continues our character development with her. From her use of glyph-magic to being chummy with Hooty, she fulfills the Eda role for much of the episode. Hooty also gets some interesting moments, as the episode brings him along for the adventure (with one scene that is quite funny, yet disgusting at the same time).
This is one episode that breaks away from the typical “A/B” storylines, and just focuses on King. Eda even shows up to give us some information about him, though there is one moment that feels a little “too convenient” in some information she provides.
Echoes of the Past feels like the second season has found its footing after some rather over-bloated first episodes. The pacing is good, though some revelations and a few areas feel a little hokey in how some of the material is handled. However, what holds our attention are the characters and the new setting that reveals more information about King’s past…let alone the promise that there are still more secrets to be revealed in the future.
Final Grade: B+
With the second season release of The Owl House, we return to The Boiling Isles to find out what has happened to Luz Noceda, King, and the Clawthorne sisters, Eda and Lilith.
The previous episode showed us what life has been like for the denizens of The Owl House, but this episode brings us up to speed on some other characters, and also explores some new areas.
With both Eda and Lilith now powerless, Luz has taken to teaching them how to use glyph-magic. While Lilith seems to be quite inquisitive, Eda is hardly enthralled to be learning.
Back at Hexside School of Magic and Demonics, Principal Bump is forced to expel Luz, along with her friends Willow and Gus. The reason? Amity Blight’s parents Odalia and Alador blame them for hindering their daughter’s studies. However, Luz is not going to take this lying down, and tries to figure out a way around this accusation.
After a shadowy introduction last season, many were curious as to who Amity’s parents were, and it seems the showrunners waste little time in getting their official introduction out of the way. Of course, this does make me question, if we get everything we need to know about the Blight parents in this episode…or, if they are going to have a character arc as the season progresses.
Most surprisingly, it seems to be Odalia Blight who is calling the shots around the family business. Alador Blight on the other hand, is somewhat of an introvert, but quite skilled with altering Abomination magic with technology.
One area of excitement for this episode was seeing Luz, Willow, Gus, and Amity all back together (for the first time since last season’s episode, Wing It Like Witches), but the episode quickly scatters them after a few minutes together. It also feels rather repetitive that we have another episode wherein Luz is declared expelled/banned, after this declaration was noted in several of the first seasons episodes.
For the episodes “B” plot, we focus on Eda and Lilith studying glyph-magic in Luz’s absence. This is out first glimpse of the two sisters having to really deal with bouncing ideas off each other, and it proves to be quite an entertaining sub-storyline. There’s some humor mined in seeing Lilith become somewhat of a “teacher’s pet,” while Eda struggles with her own ego.
Plus, things learned from the previous episode are carried over, as demonstrated by some scenes showing Lilith and Hooty interacting.
This was an episode that once it got started, I was starting to feel like things were getting back on track with the familiar story structure of the previous season. However, much like the last episode Separate Tides, this story feels like it is a little too overloaded with stuff.
The “A” storyline is where this feeling was most prevalent. There’s stuff dealing with Odalia’s control over Amity, some new information on Willow’s parents, let alone Luz’s friends working together without her, but it all feels quite forced into the story. There even comes a moment near the end that could have had a much stronger emotional impact, if much of what we saw in this storyline had 2-3 episodes to “breathe,” rather than just being forced into this episode.
Surprisingly, the flow of the “B” storyline with the Clawthorne sisters proves to be the smoother-flowing element. It is also notable how the episode helps break down some more information about glyph-magic, let alone the possibilities of mixing them into more powerful spells.
Escaping Expulsion is so far the best episode of season 2, but the fact that it also feels a bit too full of stuff makes me wary for future episodes. Are the next episodes we encounter going to have this unbalanced feeling to a number of their storylines too?
Final Grade: B
Last fall, I was surprised when I stumbled upon the first season of The Owl House on Disney+. Creator Dana Terrace’s story about a human named Luz who has stumbled onto a bizarre fantasy world, definitely pushed my buttons in the same way that series like Gravity Falls and Star vs the Forces of Evil had done.
And now with the start of a new season, I’ve decided to review each episode, and see where the series will take me.
Following the revelations at the end of the first season, Eda Clawthorne (aka The Owl Lady) and her sister Lilith have lost their ability to do magic. Events have also caused the doorway through which Luz entered the Boiling Isles to be destroyed, leaving Eda unable to sell human junk.
This leads to the group turning to bounty hunting to make money. Of the whole group, Luz feels that Eda is doing too much to try and make her comfortable, and sets out with King to capture a creature that will provide a sizable bounty.
Like most series that have a long hiatus between seasons, this episode has the thankless task of playing “catch-up” with its material. This story takes place a few weeks after the events of the last season, and while there is some information given on Emperor Belos and his actions since then, it focuses primarily on our main characters.
The main focus of the episode is on Luz. There are some fun little moments to be had here-and-there, but it feels like something is missing to really make her out-to-sea adventure really stick in the mind (even the attempts to make King act like a parrot feel just…meh). A highlight however, is showing that Luz has been working on upping her game with the use of “glyph-magic” (aka, using drawn symbols in order to do magic), and how quick she has gotten in using them.
The secondary story focuses on Lilith. For much of the first season, she was moreso a supporting character (and always trying to get Eda to join the Emperor’s coven whenever they’d meet!), so seeing her trying to deal with having no powers and being ejected from her place of security is somewhat interesting. One can definitely sense a frustration with herself and her limited abilities, though the episode does mine some unexpected comedy out of Hooty (the sentient entity of The Owl House) taking a shine to her.
The episode also introduces a new character into the mix, with a figure called The Golden Guard (voiced by Zeno Robinson). This character seems to have taken Lilith’s place in Belos’ staff, and the episode manages to give us some notable moments with this mysterious character, leading us to wonder just how he’ll figure into the rest of this season.
Watching the episode a few times, I was trying to figure out whyit didn’t seem to stick in my head. The final conclusion I came to, is that the episode is a little too “busy.” It feels like it could have been better space out over two episodes, but was combined into one, making it feel like we get a lot to process, but not enough time to really hold onto the little moments that should mean something.
With this being the first of season 2’s 20-episode lineup, I’m hoping we’ll get some better episodes soon.
Final Grade: B-
Rated PG for some violence, action and thematic elements
Over the years, Walt Disney Feature Animation has created a number of films that have shown Asian/Pacific Islanders on the big-screen. Coming from a partial-Asian heritage, I remember being excited for the release of Mulan in 1998, and seeing the kind of Japanese influence that was brought to the studios’ 2014 release, Big Hero 6. For their latest release, Raya and the Last Dragon borrows from Southeast Asian culture, with an eye to telling an original story of its own.
In the land of Kumandra, a sacred object known as the Dragons Gem is broken into pieces, and scattered across the five regions (Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon, and Tail). The shattering of the sacred item, has led to entities called the Druun, rising up and destroying the people and their livelihoods in these regions.
It is Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) from the Heart region, who seeks out the last dragon named Sisu (Awkwafina), in hopes that the creature can help restore the gem, and bring an end to the devastation.
Right off the bat, Raya as a film quickly sets up that it is going to tell its story in a much different light that what we have come to expect. It feels like It has been quite awhile since we had a new film break from the expected, and that was what quickly grabbed my attention.
Once the story gets going, Raya herself is our eyes and ears, as we make our way through each of the regions. Tran’s vocals give the character a few playful moments here-and-there, but Raya is probably one of the more serious lead heroines the studio has had in awhile.
Because of Raya’s demeanor, much of the humor is left to Sisu (aka the last dragon). When she first appears, it isn’t too hard to think that she seems like the love-child of Aladdin’s genie, and Mulan’s Mushu the dragon. Sisu cracks wise and acts quite aloof, but in quieter moments, can be a voice of reason to Raya. However, the character is rather hit-or-miss at times for me, along with some of what Awkwafina brings to the table.
One character whom crosses paths with Raya several times, is Namaari (Gemma Chan), daughter of the Fang region’s royal family, and someone who was instrumental in giving Raya trust issues in her past. There are times where it feels like the film wants to open up more in regards to Namaari (almost like it wants to really make the story about her and Raya’s viewpoints), but the film feels like it has to narrow its focus, and in doing so, Raya’s journey wins out.
That seems to be one of the big issues I had with the film. Much like Big Hero 6, it has a number of characters thrown into the mix, but they are mainly here for the action, and not to have us get too deep into whom they are. Much like how Big Hero chose to keep its main focus on Hiro and Baymax, the focus here stays mostly on Raya and Sisu, even as they gather new acquaintances along their journey.
It feels like the films editing at times even has some odd choices. Some scenes have some rather jarring fades, almost like the filmmakers were at a loss regarding where to go for some scenes. Given the film was made during the Pandemic in the last year (and sports 4 director credits and 8 writers credits!), I do wonder how precarious it was to keep balance on the film.
When it comes to focusing on particular story elements, it is in “trust and hope” that the film mostly concerns itself with. At times, it feels like the filmmakers are using the film as a mirror to our own world (much like how Zootopia tackled topics such as racism and prejudice), but it doesn’t feel like it manages to come through strong enough with what it wants to say.
This isn’t to say that the film is bad.
I did find my attention perking up more as the film moved into its second act, and it was nice to see an animated feature that showcases some great artistry in bringing the worlds onscreen to life. I was very taken by the rendering of water in a number of scenes, feeling like what had been learned on Frozen II had been taken to a new level.
It is also nice to see the filmmakers forego the “loner who doesn’t need friends” cliche that we’ve seen in other films, or making Raya a character hellbent on revenge for what has happened to her and her family. The film even subtly hints at her royal heritage, but the film manages to spare us from giving her a royal moniker.
Raya and the Last Dragon is an action film from Disney that has heart, but to me, it needed some extra TLC to really stand toe-to-toe in the story department of some of the studio’s stronger films in the last decade.
Final Grade: B
Rated PG for action and some language
A few years ago, I was very surprised when Sony Pictures Animation’s film Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse proved that the studio could actually do something worthwhile beyond such mediocre fluff as The Emoji Movie, and The Angry Birds Movie. Up until Spiderverse, I had felt their 2007 release Surf’s Up was the last time they had taken a “creative” chance.
Over the last year, the studio’s latest animated film The Mitchells vs The Machines (at one point titled Connected) looked like its future was unknown, when the pandemic caused it to drop from theatrical release schedules. That future was made a little brighter, when Netflix worked out a deal to bring the film to their streaming service in late April, allowing the Mitchell family to become escapist fare for many families looking for an escape from the comfort of their own homes.
Katie Michell (Abbi Jacobson) is a teenager who longs to escape from her mundane midwestern world, and find others that share her creative views on film and graphics. When she gets accepted to a film school in California, her dad Rick (Danny McBride) decides to take her there via a family road trip with her mom Linda (Maya Rudolph), dinosaur-obsessed brother Aaron (Michael Rianda), and the family dog, Monchi.
Katie does her best to grin and bear it as the trip goes on, but things take an unexpected turn when an advanced artificial intelligence intends to wipe out humanity, leaving the Mitchell family as Earth’s only hope.
Following Sony’s last animated film and its awards season wins, my biggest fear was that the animation studio division would “pull a Dreamworks,” and just make everything in the Spiderverse style. Fortunately, that does not appear to be the case with The Mitchells.
A highlight of the art style that directors Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe have gone with, is to render the world of the film like a digital painting. There are a number of soft edges on the characters, and there is an effort to exaggerate vs make things seem photo-real. In a way, it’s a bit like the exaggerated stylings Laika Studios used in the world of Paranorman, making it feel like the concept art has come to life.
Over the years, we’ve seen all manner of dysfunctional family road trip films (from National Lampoons to A Goofy Movie), but it is surprising how much restraint is put on not making the Mitchells “the worst family in the world.” Each one of them has their own issues/faults/etc, but for the most part, they do an okay job of getting along with each other.
One of the main storypoints is the disconnect between Katie and her dad. Rick Mitchell is one of those “analog” parents who tolerates computers, but is moreso old-fashioned compared to the rest of his family. In a way, the father/daughter disconnect is a bit like the father/son disconnect in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who also produced this film). It also helps that Katie’s mom and brother also seem to be hoping for the two to reconcile on the trip, and they end up being supportive figures in some key moments.
One of the secondary subplots involves the company PAL Labs (think of an Apple/Adobe/Amazon tech conglomerate), and its takeover plans. For the most part, the filmmakers mine this for humor rather than drama, but it never really feels they find a good balancing act for these moments. There’s even an attempt to mine humor from a pair of defective robots (voiced by Beck Bennett and Fred Armisen), but they almost feel like afterthoughts in the film.
The films efforts to be an enjoyable family film is what really made me go back and re-watch it several times. Comedy films can be hard to win me over, but The Mitchells has its heart in the right place, and that allowed me to get sucked in by its charm. The co-directing team also supplied the screenplay, and were writers on the series Gravity Falls. If you saw that series and enjoyed it, you’ll definitely see similarities to some of the comedy beats here.
For the last few decades, it has felt like so many animated features dipped into the well of Shrek by just throwing pop-culture references at people in the name of “comedy.” This film has a few, but shows a good deal of restraint for the most part, relying moreso on situational comedy. There also is an added bonus of drawn and creative embellishments that look as if Katie herself has edited this film together.
Even if it doesn’t hit the emotional highs of Spiderverse, The Mitchells vs The Machines manages to be a pretty decent comedy, with plenty of heart. It manages to not get bogged down too deeply in popular culture, and tries to keep its focus on characterization (even if the third act does become a bit too long in trying to reach its conclusion).
After seeing this film, I am hoping this means that a new era of creativity is being fostered at Sony Pictures Animation, that can give us films that push the limits on what animated films can look like, while also giving us entertaining and emotional stories.
Final Grade: B+
Rated PG for some scary images and rude material
In recent years, Japan’s world-famous Studio Ghibli (home to films such as Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro), has quietly emerged back into the spotlight. While word circulated that co-founder Hayao Miyazaki has come out of retirement to work on a new film, there have been a few other artists who are producing films under the company’s name. One in particular is Hayao’s son, Goro.
Needless to say, Goro’s work for the studio has been somewhat of a mixed bag. His adaptation of Urusla Le Guin’s Tales From Earthsea is often ignored by some (and led to some bitter words from his father), while his sophomore effort From Up on Poppy Hill proved to be a rather enjoyable story about young people living in post-WWII Japan.
Now after almost a decade, Goro has returned to direct Earwig and the Witch, based on a story by Diana Wynne Jones (the author of Howl’s Moving Castle). Most notable about this production, is that it is the studio’s first where computer-generated imagery has been utilized to bring familiar character designs to life.
Cute and manipulative orphan Earwig (Kokoro Hirasawa) enjoys her days at the St. Morwald’s Home for Children, where she revels in quietly lording over the place and a number of its people.
Things change when one day, she is adopted by a woman named Bella Yaga (Shinobu Terajima), and her lanky partner named Mandrake (Etsushi Toyokawa). Earwig soon finds out that these strange people are actually a witch and a demon, living in a house not far from the orphanage.
Though Bella simply wants Earwig to be a helper as she prepares spells and enchantments to pay the bills, the young girl is determined to learn magic and other powers from her new guardians, whether they like it or not.
As soon as still images of the production were released, I was mildly apprehensive of the familiar Ghibli designs having been translated into the computer. Once I saw the characters in motion, it took some time to accept what was being done. There is definitely some care put into a rendering a lot of the familiar traits we’ve come to know for the studio’s character designs, but it feels like the animators tend to make some of the moves a bit more “floaty” than I would have expected, let alone the textures make the characters often look like plastic figurines. There are even a few areas where they had to compromise on translating some expressions, with one of the strangest being how they visualized the boisterous “Miyazaki laugh” many of us know.
Taking in the film as a whole, I found it hard at times to figure out just where the story was going. There are a number of times where it feels like we are getting little clues as to what may be coming down the pike, but they seldom seem to pan out.
A big element (and selling point of the ad materials), is that it seems Bella and Mandrake were once part of a band prior to the events in the film. One would have assumed that Earwig would have been pulled into this history lesson (she even shares the name of an album in Mandrake’s possession!), but the film doesn’t think this that important, making a few of the promo materials to feel misleading.
As a character, Earwig herself is one that is hard to really get behind, let alone see her as anything more than a little girl who is determined to make this new house bend to her will in a matter of time. Aside from her sneaking around the house and quietly griping at whatever Bella makes her do, there just aren’t a lot of quiet moments to really find much to make us care about her.
The same can be said for Bella Yaga and (the) Mandrake. They seem to have their own lives and things that they do, but the film just doesn’t want to take the time to explore this. We never do get to see Bella doing much outside of potion-making, and Mandrake just constantly gets fired up about one thing or another. It also stands to reason that Bella is not some wicked witch, given Earwig’s nice clothes and daily meals (though one could make a drinking game out of all the times Bella threatens to make Earwig “eat worms”).
The inability for the film to really go anywhere is its biggest downfall. Goro presents all these elements that make the viewer ready to find out more than Earwig just being stuck in the house, but he doesn’t do anything really compelling with these characters to push them out of their mundane lives. We’ve seen Hayao do some intriguing things with witches and demons in some of his films, but this film feels like if Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle just never did much once she got to the castle.
The film also brings back a former collaborator, in the form of Satoshi Takebe. Unlike his more traditional score from Up On Poppy Hill, Satoshi adds some jazzy rock instrumentals at time that seem quite out-of-place from what we’ve had in the past. It adds an extra layer of darkness and intrigue to the film, but the music at times also slows down to the more familiar melodic tempos we’ve known from past films too.
At the start, I slowly began to get sucked into the story of Earwig and the Witch, as the character stylings began to seem palatable and the unusual use of rock music seemed to feel like this could be a grand experiment for Studio Ghibli. Sadly, the story just feels like there are a bunch of better plotlines that never go anywhere. As I looked back on the film, one of the most shocking things to me was just when the film felt like it might actually go somewhere interesting…it ended!
Final Grade: C+
Rated PG for some language and thematic elements
Ever since they were founded back in 1986, PIXAR Animation Studios has often looked to utilize their animation and storytelling skills, in unexpected ways. 25 years ago, rather than adapt a fairy tale or do a musical like The Walt Disney Studios, they created an original film about toys that would surprise many of us.
Since then, they have often looked to do concepts most would never consider. From culinary rats to a dystopian romance between two automatons, they have (usually) sold us on their often unusual ideas.
Five years ago, writer/director Pete Doctor took one of the studio’s biggest conceptual leaps with his film tied into the human mind (2015’s Inside Out). And now at the tail-end of 2020, in a world where life-and-death seem balanced on a knife’s edge on a daily basis, he tackles another concept that no other studio would dare consider.
Musician Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) has spent his life longing to hit the big-time, and become a successful Jazz musician. However, just when his dream is poised to come true, an accident sends Joe into an out-of-body experience.
Determined to get back to his body, Joe ends up in a place called The Great Before, where souls are prepared to be sent to Earth. Taking on the role of a mentor, Joe is assigned to the troublesome 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who has spent a long time refusing to find anything worthwhile about living.
Even so, Joe is willing to try anything (and everything), if it can mean him getting back to make his big break.
To most of us, Pete Doctor has created some of the studios’ most memorable films. His work on Monsters Inc paved the way for even greater success with Up in 2009. As I went over his films, I felt that Doctor tended to do quite well when it came to emotional beats (the relationship between Sully and Boo still stands out), but in regards to the connective tissue of his films, it often feels like he’s jamming together a lot of ideas and such, that get a little too cumbersome to achieve equilibrium (just how did Charles Muntz survive for so long in Up, anyways?).
While I did feel Doctor made strides in Inside Out to try and pull together a more cohesive storyline, I have felt that maybe in some cases, he gets a bit too enveloped into the worlds or concepts he wants to tackle, and that can cause little kinks in his stories in places.
As a character, Joe Gardner may put some in mind of Up’s Carl Fredericksen. Both are people who hold on deeply to a dream, and can come off as a bit obsessive when it comes to making that dream come true. Joe’s passion for Jazz and his own daily struggles were something I could latch onto though, but it did feel at times that Joe ends up maybe being used a bit more for comic relief than he should.
In the case of 22, I feel Tina Fey does decent work with her character, but like Joe, it feels like maybe there could have been a bit more to her than what we get. 22 is portrayed almost like someone who has had the world explained to them through virtual reality, but is someone moreso able to learn-by-doing. There are some fun little moments of interaction she has with Joe on her journey, but it felt like she just needed something extra to really make her stick with me.
For most of the film, we alternate between the Real World environment of New York City, and the more abstract visuals of The Great Beyond/Before. Much like Doctor’s alternating environs for Inside Out, the artists and technicians at Pixar once again assault our senses in a number of ways that will inspire and amaze. Each place also has hyper-stylized figures, with New York filled with caricatured humans, and The Great Beyond/Before filled with flat/abstract beings (most of them named Jerry). A highlight is the soul-counter named Terry (voiced by Rachel House), who is determined to find Joe.
Soul also marks the first time some new musicians and composers have been brought into the mix, with a soundtrack that tag-teams Jon Batiste doing Jazz arrangements for the film, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Rose using their electronic music skills to set the mood of the The Great Beyond, and some of the quieter moments. It’s an unusual mixture of sounds and instru,entals that is quite a lovely breath of fresh air from some of the more regular composers we’ve heard. A highlight is one track where all three men manage to combine their skills into a piece that is one of the more memorable musical pieces I’ve heard all year.
To me, Pete Doctor is not a bad director, but I just wish his storytelling and filmmaking skills would rise to the levels I’ve seen from other directors like Brad Bird (The Incredibles), and Lee Unkrich (Coco). Soul weaves a tale about how our experiences and movements through life tend to make us who we are, but stumbles on it’s way to greatness (in my eyes).
When Doctor hits us with the emotional moments here (like with Up), those will be what washes over most viewers. However, in the process of doing this, he manages to easily distract from the flimsiness and flaws that are often a part of his storytelling process. After 2 decades, I’m starting to think this may just be the way Doctor is “wired” into filmmaking.
Final Grade: B