Onward movie review: the Pixar road goes ever on

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Onward green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Don’t let the Pixar curve throw you: familiar this quest may be, but it’s full of magic and wonder and humor and melancholy, and set in a fully realized fantasy world. Not a masterpiece but very good.
I’m “biast” (pro): big ol’ fantasy geek; love Pixar
I’m “biast” (con): another boy with daddy issues? oy
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

Damn Pixar, anyway. What am I supposed to say here? “Wow, Pixar has done it again!”? *pfft* “More magic and wonder and humor and melancholy from Pixar!”? *yawn* “Hooray for enthralling fully realized fantasy world!”? Pixar keeps hitting it out of the park, and I’m running out of different ways to say the same thing over and over again. (Pixar disappointments? The bland yet also confused The Good Dinosaur, and the Cars series; merely thinking about its fantasy world sends me into a paroxysm of the existential heebie-jeebies. And… that’s it. Everything else Pixar has touched has been varying degrees of lovely.)

The way to do it is to praise with faint damns, maybe. Onward is not another Inside Out, perhaps one of the most audacious, most insightful, most perfect movies ever made, by anyone. It ain’t Ratatouille, with its profound and impossibly touching tale of the necessity of pursuing one’s passion and dedicating oneself to excellence. If we’re gonna grade on a Pixar curve, very few movies would ever measure up. And Onward doesn’t. It’s not a masterpiece. It’s only very good.

I’ve heard of absent fathers, but this is ridiculous…

Unlike in waaaay too many Disney movies, the protagonist, 16-year-old elf Ian Lightfoot (the voice of Tom Holland: Avengers: Endgame, The Current War), did not lose his mother as a small child; it’s his father who has died, before Ian was even born. His mom, Laurel (the voice of Julia Louis-Dreyfus: Planes, Animal Farm), is still around as a loving, supportive figure… and she also gets to be a badass mom hero as she supports Ian’s journey! But wait. I’m looking for faint damns. Here’s one: There’s still nothing terribly original in the teenage-boy-with-daddy-issues angst that fuels the plot. We get this regularly onscreen, and in so many of the stories we tell in every medium.

The setting is absolutely delightful, though, and unlike any I’ve ever seen before: a gorgeous, funny world much like our own, a society of smartphones and gas-station convenience stores and heritage being bulldozed in the name of progress. Except that heritage is one full of wizardry and daring quests and numerous sentient races — elves and orcs and pixies and centaurs and so on — living together in relative harmony. The fictional clichés of our Dungeons & Dragons and The Lord of the Rings are the literal history of the people of Onward, and they continued developing their civilization from medieval-esque levels of technology to what we would call modern information-era stuff. There are tons of blink-and-you-miss-’em visual jokes and flourishes in the clever animation — pulled off with lively, buoyant verve — that considers how these two usually divergent cultural modes might meld, and I’m sure I did indeed miss plenty of them. It’ll be fun to watch this again eventually and do a ton of freeze-framing.

That feeling when you’ve tamed your inner beast in order to make it in restaurant management.

And here’s the really interesting thing about this world, a notion that I cannot recall coming across even in my fairly extensive genre reading: these people put aside magic in favor of technology, because magic requires skill and talent that is rare while the fruits of technology are readily available to everyone. Because that’s democratic. Because that’s fair. There’s an underlying egalitarianism in this world that is cheering, especially right now.

Ah, but what’s going to happen now that Ian discovers that he has that rare skill and talent for magic, when he receives an antique wizard’s staff his father left for him, and also for his older brother, Barley (the voice of Chris Pratt: The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), although Barley is unable to activate it? Will Ian eventually bring magic back into the world and knock everything out of balance? That’s something for a sequel to explore, perhaps. Onward is merely concerned with how Ian and Barley can fix a spell gone wrong… a spell their father, an accountant who dabbled in magic, left behind that would allow the boys to spend a day with his briefly resurrected self. (Shades of A.I. and those far-future aliens bringing Mommy back for a day? So there ya go: that’s not terribly original either, is it?)

Badass pixie Dewdrop is my new Patronus.

So Ian and Barley go on an old-style quest to find the macguffin gem they need to fix the broken spell. Which Barley knows all about, because he’s a history nut… though to our eye he looks like a heavy-metal D&D nut. Which means there’s something wonderfully ticklish in how screenwriters Jason Headley (his feature debut), Keith Bunin, and Pixar veteran — and also director here — Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) play with how clichés of adolescent malehood are coded in our culture. Barley is a completely different sort of nerd than we’re used to.

Ian? He’s a pretty familiar awkward teen: nervous, uncertain, shy, clumsy. His personal quest will be all about finding the magic in himself — sometimes mostly figuratively — while inspiring others around him to do the same. Such as the hilarious tough but tiny biker pixies led by bruiser-chick Dewdrop (the voice of Grey Griffin: Bumblebee) whom the boys encounter and accidentally anger on their quest, and the Manticore (the voice of Octavia Spencer: Ma, Luce), part lion, part scorpion, who is roused out of her suburban-businesswoman mode into rediscovering her inner monster in order to give them some vital assistance along the way.

I mean, yeah: There’s magic here, of all kinds. Not much of it is completely unexpected or unusual. Much charming. Very Pixar. Whatev.

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