Thursday, April 30, 2020

Film Review: Onward

Sexuality/Nudity Mature (for a children's movie)
Violence Acceptable
Vulgarity Acceptable
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Mature (for a children's movie)

Like most PIXAR films, Onward is incredibly clever.  Its premise is creative and its story has some intelligent twists and turns.  But what keeps this movie from really soaring is the excessive melancholy present in the film.

Onward takes place in a magical world of fairies, centaurs, and the like.  However, instead of continuing to rely on magic, these mythical beings embraced technology to create a world like ours, where magic has been relegated to legends and myths.  The story centers around Ian (Tom Holland), a geeky high school kid who is the yin to his boisterous, magic-obsessed brother Barley (Chris Pratt).  Their father died several years earlier so that Ian doesn't have any real memories of him and yearns for that connection that has been missing in his life.  On his birthday, their mother Laurel (Julia-Louis Dreyfus) presents them with a magical staff that their father willed to the boys when they were both of age.  It turns out that Ian has the power to use the staff to bring back their father for 24 hours.  He attempts the spell, but something goes wrong and their father only manifests from the waist down.  So the boys have 24 hours to find a magical crystal to complete the spell before their father is gone forever.

As I said, the movie is very clever.  The jokes and gags are witty and the brother are written to be incredibly likable.  Pratt's ability to infect his character with his child-like energy is uncanny.  Barley should be insufferably frustrating in his devil-may-care attitude.  But Pratt's voice makes him innocent and enthusiastic enough to be on his side the entire time.

The animation is also top-notch.  Director Dan Scanlon makes the movie a bold and colorful blend of the technical and magical.  The production design believable merges the worlds of technology and magic in a way that feels incredibly natural to the story.  Anyone who has played Dungeons and Dragons or Magic: the Gathering will be able to easily pick up on all the subtle and not-so-subtle references to the fantasy genre that give the movie a lot of its fun texture.  Barley constantly spouts things that sound familiar to fantasy fans.  The movie humorously blends the mythical with the absurd.  The Manticor (Octavia Spencer) has moved on from her role in dispensing mythical quest items to running a Chuck E. Cheese style restaurant.  The juxtaposition is so silly that it works very well.

There is one sequence by a draw bridge that not only hearkens back to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but it was a thrilling and uplifting character moment.  Moments like this made me almost love this movie.

And I wanted to love this movie.  I really did.

But I couldn't.  It is a good movie, but it has a horrible flaw at its heart.

Ian and Barley's father is present in most of the movie only with his lower half.  He cannot talk, he cannot see.  He stumbles around, unable to communicate with his sons, nor have any idea what is happening around him.  I don't think the writers truly grasped what a horrific idea this is.  Parents, imagine you got trapped under something with only your bottom half exposed.  You know your kids are present, but you cannot hear them or see them.  Everyone once and a while they make contact with you, but you don't know what is happening and you know that time is running out.  This made the race against time aspect of the movie drastically unpleasant.  Every obstacle was not only a challenge to overcome, but another nail in the coffin.  I don't think writers Scanlon, Jason Headley, and Keith Bunin thought their story through enough.


As the movie progresses, it pivots from a story about fathers and sons to a story primarily about brothers.  This move should have felt more natural and cathartic, but with the tragic-time crunch of the botched spell with the father created too much of an emotional investment in that story to move on to the new focus in the third act.


I would not recommend this movie for kids.  That was probably my biggest gripe.  A great kids movie could be enjoyed by both children and adults.  But this is something that is packaged to kids but geared towards adults.  When I said that the movie was melancholy, that doesn't mean that sadness is a deal-breaker.  Finding Nemo and Up have some of the saddest moments in animation and I would whole-heartedly recommend that film for children.  But the difference is that those movies front-load the sadness to the beginning and then show our heroes finding joy after tragedy.  People once asked GK Chesterton if it was a bad thing to teach children fairy stories since it presented an unrealistic view of the world.  Chesterton said that children already know that there are monsters in the world.  Fairy stories tell them that there are heroes who can defeat them.  In the same way, children already know that there is sadness in the world.  They want to know that there is a way to overcome it.

I was also on alert for the insertion of same-sex relationships in this film.  I will admit that the moment happens so quickly that you may not notice it at all, as it was in The Rise of Skywalker.  But it's insignificance also is part of its insidiousness.  If a movie wanted to be about characters with same-sex attractions and have it be marketed to children and families, I would prefer they do it openly so that parents can decide if they think their children are mature enough to engage the material.  But do not sneak in these agenda-driven moments like poison mixed into a drink.  Maybe the culture is at a point where this kind of movie would be a hit.  But don't try to sucker punch the audience.

This is such a shame, because if the shadow of melancholy and agenda evaporated, Onward would be a classic tale for the ages.

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