Today’s Daily Stoic writing prompt: Where am I wasting life?
Hold with me for a bit. The thoughts about today’s writing prompt are coming….
In some ways, Christmas Day was not out of the ordinary. In previous years, we sometimes had our dinner with my husband’s sister’s family on Boxing Day rather than Christmas, so we’ve often taken the opportunity to go out to see a movie. Obviously, we were not going to go out to see a movie this year, but we did see two new movies yesterday. One was the new Wonder Woman movie, which I’d been looking forward to for months. The other was the Pixar movie Soul, which I’d only learned about a few weeks ago–but new Pixar movies are rarely not a good thing. So yesterday, after dinner, we settled down to watch.
HERE BE SPOILERS!
Wonder Woman 1984 was the first. It was the subject of an absolutely spectacular trailer earlier this year, set to an orchestrated mix of New Order’s “Blue Monday”–an absolutely on-point recording for 1984. Between this and the glimpses of its 1980s setting–along with some spectacular action sequences–I was excited. Then, of course–pandemic, and the release was delayed, multiple times. Finally, the decision was made to release it in the US on HBO Max. Up until a few days ago, it looked as if there would be no streaming release in Canada, but at the last minute Cineplex (and it turned out as well, Apple TV) picked it up on their streaming platform, priced at $29.95 for a full-priced rental. Since there are two of us, this was comparable to a regular movie ticket, so we went ahead.
It started out with an absolutely spectacular competition sequence between the Amazons at Thymiscira. Diana is participating as a young girl against much older women. Viewers marvel at her cleverness as she takes the lead, gasp as she is knocked off her horse, and cheer as she finds a way to get back into the race. But she’s pulled out just as she’s leading the way to the finished line, with her mentors admonishing her that she had taken shortcuts and so had disqualified her, even though she was appearing to lead. “Truth matters,” was the lesson here.
We run ahead many years to 1984, where we get to see Diana out jogging (and casually saving others from pitfalls) before she intervenes to stop a jewel heist in a mall. The mall sequence is peak 80s verisimilitude (but not complete accuracy) and is a lot of fun. The initial setup also feels like a legit 80s plotline, perhaps a cousin of the Indiana Jones movies–there’s a mysterious stone that, as the movie begins to set up, we realize is granting wishes to anyone who touches it and makes such a wish. Instead of archaelogists, we have Diana and her new gemologist friend Barbara, who is the shy, nerdy, glasses-wearing, overlooked type (despite the fact that she is, of course, movie star gorgeous under those specs and nondescript clothing). After some initial friction over Diana’s looks and ability to wear improbable high heels, yhe two do a little bit of sisterhood bonding. Diana then saves Barbara from a male harasser on the way home. Shortly after Barbara inadvertently triggers the wish-granting stone, and we know something is up because all of a sudden men start noticing her, including one Maxwell Lord, who manages through flirting with Barbara to get his hands on the stone. Lord is the stereotypical 80s “greed is good” type, but his business ventures are all clearly failing, so his wish is to become the stone–that is, to have its powers for granting wishes. It all goes very, very badly from there. Diana, meanwhile, has wished that her boyfriend Steve were back, and he duly shows up (and there’s a fun sequence with 80s clothes). Meanwhile, Barbara is suddenly wearing spectacular heels, ditching her glasses and gaining in strength–but losing her compassion and empathy. Turns out the wish also takes away something you value most. The rest of the movie is essentially about that. Lord essentially goes insane with power, granting wishes everywhere, and eventually finding a way to use satellite technology to “touch” people remotely. Society begins to collapse. Lord gets to the President of the United States, who wishes for all kinds of additional nukes as deterrents against the Soviet Union; the Soviets see these appear and start launching retaliatory strikes. Barbara goes bad. Diana figures out that her powers are waning just when she needs them most because Steve has returned, but refuses to give him up (at least initially). Once she finally does, and understands what’s needed to undo the damage, she tracks down Lord. Justice happens.
Somehow, this all falls a little flat. For one thing, the 80s look never progresses beyond window dressing, which is mostly confined to the opening robbery sequence and the 80s clothing sequence with Steve. Even the women’s hair, while certainly aiming at 80s “body waves”, doesn’t really quite get there. Other than one scene in a club, there’s almost no 80s music at all (certainly no “Blue Monday.”) This felt like a 2020 attempt to evoke the 80s without really going deeper. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by Deutschland 83 and 86, which are pitch-perfect evocations of the era. Or perhaps it’s just that I turned 17 in 1984 and actually remember what it felt like. The other issue was that the movie was drained of much of the humour that made the first Wonder Woman movie so special. That’s always been my beef with most of the DC Universe movies–they’re so generally dour. There were a few brief flashes of that wit that had made the first Wonder Woman so entertaining, but not enough.
Also, as at least one reviewer has stated, Pedro Pascal’s talents were wasted on the character of Lord. He had more to work with emotionally with a helmet on in The Mandalorian.
Was it worth $30 for two people? Not really.
Soul, on the other hand, was free. We’re already Disney+ subscribers, and Disney made the choice to make it part of the regular subscription service rather than as an add-on like they did for the live-action Mulan they released earlier. But unlike Mulan, Soul was an entirely new animated feature–not a sequel, not a liveaction remake. Soul reminded me most of Inside Out in its abstract depiction of–rather than a child’s interior life—a soul’s encounter with the metaphysical. Joe Gardner is a middle-school band instructor–in fact, we hear his band playing the Disney theme in the opening credits. He clearly loves jazz, and is trying to bring that love to a bunch of bored, indifferent kids–except for one trombone player who suddenly busts out a solo, only to be mocked by her bandmates. But he’s able to show the kids a little of the passion he has for the music. When class ends, he’s given the news he’s been hired on fulltime–but Joe doesn’t want to be a middle school teacher, he wants to be a jazz musician. And he gets the break of a lifetime–only to be so carried away that he falls down a manhole and….well….his soul ends up on the escalator to the Great Beyond. Somehow he manages to escape, falling into the Great Before, where souls prepare for their journey to earth. He’s not supposed to be there, but manages to take another’s place as a mentor to what turns out to be #22, who’s been there for thousands of years and has thwarted mentors from Mother Theresa to Gandhi. The mission for the mentors is to help the soul find its “spark” and thus be ready to go to earth. The whole Great Before is run by constantly shifting figures that look like something out of a Picasso painting and are all called Jerry. There’s also Terry, who’s the accountant responsible for souls and finds that there’s one missing. (At one point, Terry will be tracking Joe and will hide on an abstract art poster.)
I’m not going to spoil everything, but Joe ends up back on Earth along with 22–but they end up in Joe’s body, and Joe ends up in the body of a “support cat” named Mittens. They have to navigate Joe’s life long enough to get him a second chance at his dream gig and hopefully find a way to get him back into his body. At the same time, 22 is learning about what life is really like on Earth–tasting pizza for the first time, talking to Joe’s trombonist student, his barber, and his mother (who had opposed his dreams of being a jazz musician), and seeing the world through Joe’s eyes. Again, in this case, no spoilers, because getting to where this thing is going is part of the fun.
Soul is being praised for being the first Pixar movie with a Black main character, but it’s more than that–the music is authentic and each of the characters we meet is fully realized and interesting. I particularly liked the character of jazz legend Dorothea Williams, voiced by Angela Bassett (aka Queen Ramonda in Black Panther.) I think there’s often an assumption that a female jazz musician is going to be a singer, like Aretha Franklin (and Dorothea sounds enough like Aretha for the mind to go there on first hearing), but no, she is a no-nonsense saxophonist. Joe’s barber, with his enormous beard (perhaps he’s Muslim?) turns out to have had dreams of being a veterinarian, but loves the work he’s found at the barber shop. And it’s one of Joe’s former students that gets him his big break–a student that clearly he was able to reach and inspire. Finally Joe’s seamstress/entrepreneur mother turns out to have complex reasons for opposing Joe’s dreams–but he’d never known, because he’d never talked to her about them; in the end, she’s on his side. I also have to mention the cat. It’s really Joe, of course, but for once a cat gets to be a sympathetic character in a Disney movie. There is one particularly amusing bit where, having stolen a slice a pizza for 22, he passes a rat similarly making off with his own slice.
So – going back to today’s writing prompt: It’s definitely a movie that reinforced some of the Stoic ideas I’ve been pondering for a couple of months now–namely, that your life is what you have right now, and it’s so easy to let it slip away from you–to not appreciate what you have, to not ask the deeper questions, to not truly get to know those around you–and in failing to do these things, you miss so much. And you might not ever see it until it’s taken from you. The ending of the movie leaves a lot open as to what might happen next, and I appreciated that. And it’s certainly a movie that I think may ring true for a lot of people right now.
I definitely recommend it. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry (oh, I definitely did), but best of all, provided you have Disney+, you won’t kiss $30 goodbye. (If you don’t have Disney+, it’d definitely be worth paying for for a couple of months just for this, although it also means you could binge The Mandalorian for ultimate optimization of funding resource.)