Life sucks. Everything I write might as well start like that
from now until… whenever this current state of the world ends. I spent my last
week of social opportunity having a good final cinema day for who knows how
long, with a 2nd viewing of The Invisible Man on the cards
followed by a “sneak screening” of Pixar’s latest fare Onward. Doesn’t
that sound delightful for a last movie to see for who knows how long? Another
movie by a studio renowned for modern animation classics defining generations.
Well it all would have been fantastic if I had I liked Onward.
This is the
story of our world, except as if it was populated by fantasy characters and
magical elements. The society of this world once relied on magic, but society
has forgotten it in favour of the technology that has defined the last two
centuries. Two elf brothers, Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt), have
lost their father, and as such must embark on a quest beset by him to complete
a magic spell that brings him back for one whole day.
So you know for sure that it’ll all lead to a tear-jerker ending
in true Pixar fashion.
A similar idea of a modern world with fantasy elements was
shown in the tedious 2017 Netflix movie Bright, but with Onward, Pixar and director Mike Scanlon
(Monsters University) seek to go as far into the genre as possible,
drawing bits and pieces of Lord of the Rings, Dungeons&
Dragons and many other fantastical universes into an interesting and
inventive world. As such, there are some welcome radical changes to our modern
world, with various fantasy puns on commonplace items like the existence of a
“Mountain Doom” soft drink and “Swamp Gas” stations. I enjoyed being in this
world, seeing elves, trolls, centaurs, cyclops’, dragons, and unicorns, all
running around doing recognisable activities. At the very least, the magical
side of things is nice because magic is always, at its core, instinctively fun
due to its infinite possibilities.
The vocal skills of Tom Holland and Chris Pratt displays a strong
chemistry with each other, selling a brotherly relationship that’s filled with
laughs as well as constant miscommunication. Alone, these actors come across at
first as just doing fun voices rather than really being their characters, with
Holland just reusing his “Peter Parker” voice and Pratt sounding like if Jack
Black was your Dungeon Master for the evening. They work best when they are
developing that brotherly relationship together which keeps your attention
through this magical adventure.
I say “magical adventure” only in that this an adventure
movie that has magic in it, because for a movie about a magical world, it’s
unfortunately not much of a magical experience. Real magic can be found, as
usual for Pixar, in the stunning animation, which brings rich environments,
impossible fantasy creations, and character-based emotions to life. However,
the actual adventure we’re watching is pretty paint-by-numbers.
Every step these characters take has a catch to it, a twist that slows them down and makes them rethink their plans, which is the template of most Pixar stories when you think about it. Our characters need to get something or go somewhere and thus their journey is filled with crazy side-characters, danger, action, excitement, and ends with an emotional finale of reconnecting with emotions and/or loved ones. That’s pretty much the entire Pixar filmographies narrative layout, and given their success, it’s a formula that works for sure. But, this familiarity is maybe a little too familiar, and maybe by the umpteenth time round, I’m just a little tired of it.
Beyond the actual world of Onward, there’s nothing
really exceptional or truly moving on display. This is Pixar on autopilot,
throwing out jokes and humour that feels cut from the other better movies in
the past, in service of a plainly obvious emotional story that, and all
focusing on two characters who have some charm and likeability that gets
strained by the frankly unfunny and tedious side characters they keep running
Onward feels cut from the same cloth as Brave,
Finding Dory and The Good Dinosaur in that this can entertain
some audiences out there, mostly young children, but it lacks that defining
quality that will be remembered and loved for years to come. It isn’t as
insipid as Cars 2, forgettable as Cars 3, or dishwater-dull as The
Good Dinosaur, but it never feels like it’s trying hard enough to earn its
The fantasy twist on the modern world feels like a pitch
meeting idea, reverse-engineered to fit into that typical Pixar mould instead
of just being its own natural story about brothers or technology, both of which
are only half-developed in the grand schemes of things. A dragon battle finale
is quite wild and fun, but Onward is just a mildly enjoyable and mostly
distracting journey that might be the best mindless thing for you to see in these
Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Writers: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin, (based on an original story by Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin)
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