A big-hearted but misguided animated spectacular
Prithee, brave filmgoer, and hark the arrival of a Pixar motion picture that feels hand-crafted and anvil-pounded, sprinkled with fairy dust and sealed with runic enchantments. If Middle Earth had multiplexes, Hogwarts conjured a movie night, and Medieval Times projected a pre-show distraction, then Onward would be casting its spell among those hordes.
ONWARD ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Dan Scanlon
Written by: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin
Starring: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer
Running time: 103 min
And that’s really the problem with Onward, a big-hearted but misguided animated spectacular. Why did anyone at Pixar think that D&D nerds deserve to be the heroes of a major Disney release? Talk about niche. Yes, Lord of the Rings junkies and Harry Potter devotees might widen its appeal, enjoying all the lip service to mythical creatures and sonorous incantations. But the movie is really about fantasy fans and not so much about the fantasy. It’s far more down-to-earth action than it is beyond-the-realms epic quest. It’s a pose.
Which is too bad, because the premise is pretty charming. “Long ago,” the film begins in voiceover, “the world was filled with wonder.” Sorcerers and dragons and cyclops, oh my! But then someone invented electricity, and in time technology usurped magic. So towns big and small, like New Mushroomton and its gigantic fungi abodes, became part of a bricks-and-mortar grid system. Their modern world is a weird mutation of its former self, where centaur cops drive patrol cars, flightless sprites ride motorcycles, and a fearsome monster like the manticore opens a theme restaurant that uses the beast’s winged-lion-scorpion form as fodder for a warm-and-fuzzy mascot.
The focus is on meek Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), a shy teen elf whose 16th birthday occasions a gift from beyond the grave. His mom Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) brings out a mysterious Gandalfian staff from his father Wilden (Kyle Bornheimer), who died soon after Ian was born. “Dad got sick,” the characters repeat, keeping the gory details very Disney-friendly euphemistic. Dad also apparently grooved on the mystic past. And what he left behind was instructions on performing a “visitation spell” that would temporarily bring him back until the next sunset.
Ian is befuddled, but his embarrassing older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) is thrilled. He’s an overconfident oaf indulging in what his mom calls the world’s longest gap year by obsessing over Quest of Lore, a dorky role-playing game. And that game helps them decipher how to use their dad’s staff. Kind of.
Its powers are wonky after all these years, and their attempt only half-works. Specifically the bottom half: the dad they restore is basically a pair of chinos, striped socks and hush puppies. What they need is a Phoenix Gem to finish the job. So Barley, using his encyclopedic knowledge of their long-forgotten ancient history, prods Ian into a road-trip search for the stone.
In another head-scratcher, big bro Barley wears a denim jacket festooned with headbanger iron-on patches and drives around in a junky-janky van with an airbrushed Unicorn mural. He’s the living embodiment of the social-leper subculture that was 1970s hard-rock wizards-and-warriors fantasy-adventure. That outdated outcast was a goofy punchline in the 1980s. But in 2020? Millennials will be quizzing their elders about that one for days.
The brothers’ misadventures involve run-ins with once-magical creatures which, in a lovely narrative twist, start to reconnect with their own latent powers. But, like the semi-apparated father, Onward is pretty half-assed about the conceit. So the film is sort of about getting in touch with your inner strengths? More or less, but not quite. Because this is a family movie, the emphasis is really on family. And the journey is fundamentally about how two estranged fatherless brothers learn to appreciate each other.
Screw that fantasy-world conceit anyway: by the end of Onward, tech still overwhelmingly reigns. Sure, Pixar dutifully serves up that emotional umami it crafts so well. But harder-headed viewers might feel like the whole experience is less alchemical and more robotic.