Director: Dan Scanlon
Writers: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin
Composers: Mychael Danna, Jeff Danna
Starring: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer
Genre: Urban Fantasy, Animation, Adventure, Comedy
What even are we to you anymore, Pixar? Whereas once your direction and image couldn’t be more clear, now it’s been deeply muddled in rote and repetition. Is it possible that since the Disney acquisition, many of those who were responsible for your past accomplishments may have been funnelled out of your circle of concentrated triumph? Some days, I don’t even recognize you.
Where is the fire that brought about the first fully CGI-animated feature film and the first entry in one of the greatest movie trilogies of all time? Where has the energy and bravado gone that gave us the one of the greatest superhero films and one of the most first-rate family movies of all time in the same stroke? To what chasm has been thrown the spirit that celebrated an intimate father-son relationship as fervently as it championed the majesty of the ocean?
I do believe that the soul of your past achievements is flickering about your ranks. Even here, its embers are warm. We need only to give it some air.
Violence/Scary Images: The story centers around the main characters’ deceased father coming back to life for one day. Parental death is a common element of children’s films, and it can be upsetting to some viewers. The boys’ dad does come back, but only from the waist down. His half-body might initially scare really young kids, although it becomes a funny and bittersweet circumstance. Both Barley and Ian experience sad moments. A climactic fight sequence involves a giant, fire-breathing flying monster that destroys everything in its path and endangers several characters. But (spoiler alert) no one dies or is seriously hurt except for the father (who was already dead). There’s a chase scene in which motorcycle-riding pixies pursue the brothers. Pixies jump on Ian as he tries to drive, and the van ends up crashing. A character paralyzes a pawnbroker. Cory the Manticore wrecks her restaurant when she loses her temper, destroying things and spewing fire. Some peril/tension/danger.
Language/Crude Humor: A couple of dangling exclamations like “what the…,” “son of a …,” and “dang.”
Sexual Content: Laurel and her boyfriend, a centaur, are occasionally affectionate. They flirt a little, kiss once, and hug. A ringtone is clearly romantic. Brief mention of a lesbian relationship (not depicted).
Drug/Alcohol Use: A character becomes more and more caffeinated — excitable, jittery, and fast-talking — after consuming energy drinks.
Spiritual Content: Depictions of fantasy magic.
Other Negative Themes: Vindication of hooliganism.
Positive Content: Promotes brotherhood, teamwork, perseverance, communication, and resilience. Ian and Barley’s relationship must overcome differences of opinion and disagreements. Also encourages taking occasional risks, learning when to be assertive and fierce, and acknowledging the magic of family love, adventure, and trying new things. Suggests that over-relying on technology removes some of the wonder and magic from life.
Ian is a smart, thoughtful teen who wants, more than anything, to spend time with the father he never knew. Barley is a dedicated, caring, and protective older brother who encourages Ian to discover his powers and defends him from dangerous situations. They’re both courageous and perseverant, and Ian learns to take more risks, while Barley learns the value of teamwork and accountability. Their mom, Laurel, is a strong, brave mother who wants the best for her sons and willingly puts herself in dangerous situations in order to try to help/save them.
I can say with no degree of uncertainty or irony that the initial trailers for Onward was the first time that American animation powerhouse Pixar made a bad first impression with me. Past releases from the studio such as Monsters University and Finding Dory were ill-conceived from the beginning, but they had far greater predecessors to compensate for that. By contrast, Cars is the only initially mediocre entry that was actually redeemed by a later entry.
What to make of Onward, the latest Pixar release directed and co-written by Dan Scanlon (incidentally the director for the aforementioned Monsters University)? At first glance, it seems like the kind of project that DreamWorks would have undertaken after completing the How to Train Your Dragon series. From the subversive high fantasy setting dotted with mythical creatures and tangential lore to the focus on a spindly neurotic intellectual prodigy and a deuteragonist who bears more than a passing resemblance to Snotlout Jorgenson, it wouldn’t be a shock if someone dug through the credits here and found overlap with the production crew for Dragon.
It can’t be said that the mark of Pixar’s genius and maturity is no where to be found here. Taking place in some undefined fantasy realm where there are no human characters and magic was once used as commonly as electricity is in reality, we are told that magic itself gradually became replaced by electricity and engineering due to its ease of use and accessibility. The world of Onward for the story proper is hardly distinguishable from our own in its standard of living and infrastructure. This was one of the elements in its presentation that reminded me of DreamWorks. It was the hallmark of success for Finding Nemo that it found arresting intrigue in the natural wonders of ocean life while delivering an equally intriguing family drama, whereas its aesthetically similar competitor, Shark Tale, was too buried in the mundane trivialities of surface life to give the ocean its due diligence. In Onward, much otherworldly resonance is so deeply couched in thick layers of real-life doldrum that it nearly suffocates.
It could be argued that this was done intentionally for the sake of the thematic strains. Pixar has had a tendency to both allow the audience to take pleasure in the present while also deftly reminding us not to lose the value of the past. The conflict between Woody and Buzz was said to have been inspired in large part by the cultural shift from Westerns to Sci-Fi that took place during the 1960s. Onward, however sloppily, aims on one level at least to not relinquish the patina of our natural desire for wonder and our natural capacity to achieve great feats as we continue to “modernize” ourselves. I say “sloppily”, because in many ways, those elements that are meant reignite the sense of adventure and wonder are repeatedly shown to be either counterproductive or even destructive.
Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) is a sixteen-year-old elf who’s plagued by a number of handicaps. He lost his father, Wilden (Kyle Bornheimer), to an illness before he was born, and the only access Ian has to any recollection of him is through vague memories of his scatterbrained older brother Barley (Chris Pratt), his doting but somewhat distant mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and what seems to be a single cassette recording. The screenplay, written by Scanlon, Jason Headley, and Keith Bunin, knows how to put the pain of this premature loss on the characters’ sleeves. One of the most gripping moments early on is when Ian pantomimes a “conversation” with his deceased father by use of the cassette recording, interspersing his own longings and wishes with the breaks in his dad’s fumbling with the recording device. That was the moment that reminded me both of the wonder and magic that Pixar once stood for and how much of that magic had been lost.
When the story gets going, it is there that I find another blow to the stomach: the worst of Pixar’s history remained strong, while the strengths grew weaker. Laurel informs the two boys that their father left behind a gift that would enable him to see them for one more day, consisting of an old wizard’s staff and a gemstone that could be used to bring him back to life for 24 hours. In modern times, such methods are seen as so archaic that their functionality is highly questionable. Barley has been long driven by a somewhat unhealthy fascination with the magical ways of old, so he’s eager to try out the spell himself, while Ian and Laurel are largely skeptical, but hopeful that Barley having his head in the clouds will prove fortuitous this one time. By pure serendipity and a little wishful thinking, the spell works, but only partially, with the father being brought back but only from the waist down, leaving the boys with only 24 hours to find another gemstone to complete the spell and spend whatever time they can with their late father.
As foils, Ian and Barley function well enough with Pratt and Holland having strong chemistry in vocal performance. Once the call to adventure is given, Barley goes full ham on the whole prospect of embarking on a “quest” akin to one from his Hearthstone/Dungeons & Dragons/Magic: The Gathering game, with Ian being cripplingly skeptical of the whole thing, but reluctantly trusting in Barley’s seniority and greater knowledge of all things magical. It is in this thread where what is arguably the film’s biggest weakness is in full display.
Lovable airheaded oafs like Barley are not at all alien to Pixar’s past accomplishments, but they were more responsibly handled before. For every practical and sensible decision that needs to be made, Barley seems to constantly wish to offer up a more impractical and counterproductive one that’s supposed to be “less obvious”. Rather than take the main freeway to the mountain where a new gemstone is supposed to be, Barley would much rather take the “Path of Peril”, which he just scribbled on the road map for example. That’s a fine quirk for him to have, especially when contrasted with Ian’s more timid and reserved nature. As Laurel once confided, “One’s afraid of everything and the other’s not afraid of anything!”
The issue is not with the material, but with how it is handled and executed. Archetypally speaking, Onward is brilliantly structured. In addition to the organic call to adventure, there’s also the threshold guardian, the father being rescued from the abyss, the retrieval of the magic weapon, the dragon in the cave of riches, and much more material for any mythologist to chew on for a while. With all that in place, it’s quite disappointing that so much opportunity for holistic growth in the cast was squandered.
In Finding Nemo, Dory’s mental handicap was affable, but still treated as a legitimate crutch that cost her and Marlin a few brushes with death. Buzz Lightyear’s delusions of grandeur proved to be his near undoing on more than one occasion. However comical and endearing, these were treated by the films as character flaws to work through and overcome. Onward, by contrast, has no intention of correcting Barley’s behavior pattern as an irresponsible manchild. By the end of the tale, Ian is the one who has to make the biggest sacrifices, receive the most correction, and make all the changes in his outlook. Barley learns next to nothing by day’s finish, ending up in exactly the same eccentric and infantile state of mind as before. In fact, the movie seems to want to justify Barley’s nonsensical views at the expense of Ian’s sense of reason. I’ve found myself many times recently taking issue with scripts that are clearly very one-sided in their stance on the conflict between two central dichotomous characters.
There is one brief and unconvincing moment in which Barley does make something of a costly sacrifice for the team, but that’s ultimately rescinded. As for the characters and plots dotting the margins? Take ‘em or leave ‘em. Laurel embarks on a journey of her own in hot pursuit of the boys, but it largely proves fruitless. There’s a fiery encounter with a manticore (Octavia Spencer) that’s treated by the trailers as though she was going to play a bigger role in the plot than she actually does. It’s rather baffling that a film that initially didn’t build much in the way of high hopes still somehow managed to be a disappointment.
In a somewhat ironic way, I should expect to use the word “disappointment” in a Pixar movie review more often these days. This studio built up so much in the way of excellence in their golden years that it’s hard to imagine their consistently being able to match it under so much new management. With Onward, I left feeling as though Pixar had accepted its fate as another grindingly average producer of easily digestible animated family fare, never again to rise to the levels of even more recent winsome titles like Inside Out and Coco. Then again, Soul is at least giving off the aura of that old unconventional excellence. If the safe mass appeal of Onward is what is necessary to ensure even the chance for the lightning of Pete Doctor’s vision to strike again, so be it.
Theatrically, Onward is preceded by the animated short, Playdate with Destiny, a dialogue-free Simpsons skit starring the baby Maggie and her encounter with a boy named Hudson and her ensuing whirlwind romance with her new beau. The short is as sharp and witty as one could rightly expect from one of the longest-running dynasties in American TV comedy, but seemed incredibly out of place being released adjacent to the latest in the Pixar library. Is this what we can expect from this moment going forward into Disney’s future? I certainly hope not…
+ Outstanding art direction
+ Well-grounded in its archetypes
- One-sided vindication
- Incongruent with the brand
The Bottom Line
Underneath the DreamWorks fluff, there is a Pixar heart beating strongly, both for good and for ill.