Little magic to be found in fantastical world of ‘Onward’

BY NEIL MORRIS, CN+R Film Critic
Posted 3/6/20

The film speaks to those who have lost their fathers and struggle with the complicated family dynamics that often follow. But that message gets diluted in this medieval morass that lurches along until a denouement that ends where it began and thus feels like it goes nowhere (more unintended allegory).

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Little magic to be found in fantastical world of ‘Onward’

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Posted

Onward
Grade: C +
Director: Dan Scanlon
Starring the voices of: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer and Mel Rodriguez
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 1 hr., 43 min.

Suffering from an identity crisis, “Onward” is an apt metaphor for its creator, the indomitable Pixar Studios. After a decade of doing no wrong and redefining the animated film medium, Pixar hasn’t made a great film since “Toy Story 3” (only “Coco” came close), instead churning out sequels and lackluster originals the past 10 years. We keep waiting for Pixar to reclaim that old magic, but it continues to rest on its laurels and subsist on its technological prowess.

In that vein, “Onward” would merit high marks if it was meant as a meta Pixar self-critique.

Set in a fantastical world inhabited by elves, pixies, dragons, unicorns, and other mythological creatures, these fantastical creatures of yore have long since abandoned their magical ways. Society has grown reliant on its technological advances: Who needs a magic wand when you have electricity, winged flight when you have airplanes, or galloping centaurs when you have cars? Instead of being venerated, their history has been consumerized, if not outright forgotten. It’s a set-up that carries faint echoes of Pixar’s “The Incredibles,” which also revolved around a world in which achievement and individual talents have become homogenized.

But “Onward” eventually pivots from this promising premise to focus on the daddy issues of two elves, Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) and his brother Barley (Chris Pratt). Ian is a 16-year-old nebbish who seriously misses the father he never knew, to the point of carrying on fictitious conversations with an old tape recording of his late dad. Barley is a screw-up who drives around in a beat-up van and harbors an obsessive nostalgia for the ye olde bygone days of adventure — he’s not far removed from Dungeons and Dragons cosplay.

This is when the film becomes a series of very convenient events. Ian receives a prearranged “sweet 16” gift from his dad: a magic staff and gem that will bring his father back to visit for just 24 hours. There’s no explanation of how this was created, or why dad waited until Ian turned 16 to bequeath this, or why no one in society has been able to mimic this feat, but I digress.

Ian screws up the spell, conjuring just his father’s self-aware legs. With half-dad in tow, Ian and Barley race against the clock to find another hidden gem in order to complete the spell before their father entirely vanishes. Their quest comprises byways, secret passages and other uninspired obstacles. Meanwhile, their mom Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) solicits the help of her new beau, a centaur named Colt (Mel Rodriguez), and a tavern-owning manticore (Octavia Spencer) to find her sons before danger finds them.

“Onward” doesn’t ever pick a lane. There’s an absurdist element that’s lost in the film’s mainstream packaging. After some intriguing world-building, the story shifts almost entirely to a fable about fathers and sons that becomes more of a literal bro-mance. The film speaks to those who have lost their fathers and struggle with the complicated family dynamics that often follow.

But that message gets diluted in this medieval morass that lurches along until a denouement that ends where it began and thus feels like it goes nowhere (more unintended allegory). “Onward” looks great, but its uneven pacing and derivative underpinning undercuts its sweetness. For a film ostensibly grounded in magic, there’s precious little to be found.

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