2020 | rated PG | directed by Dan Scanlon | voices of Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia-Louis Dryfuss, Octavia Spencer | 1 hr 45 mins |
Pixar spends so much time in the tiny world beneath our feet with ants, toys, fish and thoughts that it almost a bit odd – and refreshing – when they set to the task of large scale modern world building. One of the few times they have done it is in the vastly underrated sequel Monsters University. University director Dan Scanlon is back at it, this time this time building a fantasy world of elves, dragons, mermaids and fairies with a clever modern twist. While the film’s most clever moments are our opening introductions to this world, Onward still packs the strong story and emotional punch that defines a Pixar experience.
The set-up for this movie is so clever and fun that I’d almost rather it have a bigger scope than it does. A Futurama-esque story that spans the movie’s world. This is the first Pixar film I would immediately welcome a sequel to. The history of Onward’s world is one of Tolken-esque magic and wizards, until electricity was invented and modernized society. Mermaids still exist but they now tan in blow-up pools taking selfies with smartphones. Dragons still exist but they’ve been domesticated into household pets and that history has now been funneled down into a myth expressed only in Dungeons and Dragons fantasy role-playing games. Enter the Lightfoots, youngest Ian (voice of Tom Holland), the wirey shy one, older brother Barley (voiced by Chris Pratt channeling Jack Black), the boisterous fantasy geek, and mom Laurel (voiced by Julia Louis-Dryfuss). Ian pines for the possibilities of how different his life would be had their dad lived long enough to help him grow up, but now that he’s 16 Laurel digs out a gift left by the old man: a wizard’s staff that allows the boys to conjure him up for 24 hours. The spell goes wrong and only produces their father’s lower half, sending Ian and Barely on a quest up the interstate and against time to right the spell.
Where another studio would have turned this premise into a string of fantasy gags (see Dreamworks’ cold, mechanical obnoxious Shrek series), Pixar uses magic to explore a juicy dramatic idea: what would you do for 1 day with a lost loved one? How they ultimately answer this question is why they are the best in the business at this. The last act of Onward packs an emotional punch but in a mature, surprising and challenging way. This movie never goes on auto-pilot nor takes it’s audience for granted. It recalls the great zig-zag ending of Monsters University where Pixar subverted the “believe in yourself and you can do it” Disney message to build a more thoughtful final thesis. Onward is Frozen for boys in the most honest of ways.
Saved in the end, Onward still works as a road trip movie with Ian and Barley taking Barley’s trusty rock and roll van on a modern quest learning the rules of their father’s magician’s staff and wrangling his legs Weekend at Bernie’s 2 style along the way. It’s in this modern setting where the usual Pixar visual magic doesn’t have it’s usual luster. Instead of being a lush animated world, the suburban landscapes of Onward are more like action figures banging around on playsets. Scanlon rests a lot of the movie on one of my least favorite family film character tropes: the big, obnoxious older brother out of an 80s Disney movie. Barley is the jean-jacket wearing fantasy geek who stomps around the first half humiliating his brother and attempting to derail the plot. That Pixar ultimately makes this character work is a huge achievement. A mid-film set piece where Barley is accidently shrunken by a spell and the two fight off motorcycle fairies on the freeway is a wonderful action scene.
Even though Inside Out was only 5 years ago and Coco only 3, it feels like a long time since we’ve had an original Pixar film and not a string of increasingly tiresome sequels (Toy Story 4, The Incredibles 2 and Finding Dory pale to their predecessor). Onward is not quite a return-to-form triumph, it is still a strong, solid entry worth seeing. Best of all it hits the emotional beats exactly right. With Soul set to come out later this year, it feels like it’s time to get excited about Pixar again.