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Onward
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Not Exactly Upward"
3 stars

I have seen every feature that Pixar has produced since they revolutionized the animated film industry a quarter-century ago with the groundbreaking “Toy Story” and while I have adored a good number of them and disliked a few as well, their latest effort, “Onward,” marks the first time I emerged from viewing one of their projects with the kind of reaction best summed up with that pithiest of phrases, “meh.” It has all the elements that have made their past films so memorable—a striking visual style, unusual characters, a storyline that is fanciful on the surface but which contain strong emotional underpinnings—but for some reason, they just don’t quite come together in a successful or inspired manner. It isn’t terrible by any means but it certainly isn’t that good either. Watching it is like eating at a restaurant whose chief asset is that it is in a convenient location—it is just good enough to be sort of satisfying for most tastes but at the same time, you know in your heart that you have had better meals.

The story is set in an alternate world where, according to the opening narration, real magic used to exist in abundance until it was rendered almost entirely moot by scientific progress—a land that once would not have seemed out of place in the works of Tolkien now resembles the kind of California suburb straight out of an 80s era Amblin production, albeit with more trash unicorns roaming the streets. Our hero is Ian (Tom Holland), an awkward young elf who lives at home with his widowed mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and older brother Barley (Chris Pratt), who still believes in the power of magic and who is determined to keep the old ways preserved as much as possible—he is also a devotee of a role-playing game that he insists is inspired by how their world used to be before those pesky light bulbs and whatnot came in. It turns out that Ian never knew his father, who passed away before he was born from an illness. As the story opens, it is Ian’s 16th birthday and Laurel determines that it is time to give him an Barley a gift from dear old dad that she has been holding on to for all these years. It proves to be a genuine magical staff and a crystal that, according to the instructions, have the power to conjure up Dad’s soul, though only for 24 hours.

Ian proves to have an unexpected facility for conjuring spells but while trying to bring his father back, things go sideways and by the time the crystal’s powers are used up, he has only been able to bring back Dad’s lower half and the 24-hour clock is ticking. However, Barley is convinced that there is another crystal out there that will allow them to complete the ritual and that the game can serve as a map to lead them to it. Desperate to finally meet the father that he has idolized from afar his entire life, Ian agrees to this plan and the two pile into Barley’s beloved van—a beater with vague mystical powers and a gear labeled “onward”—to set off on a quest that will take them to any number of unusual locations and find them confronting both the powers of magic and the ways in which they have attempted to process their sense of grief and loss regarding their father. Meanwhile, Laurel has gotten wind of their plans and sets off in pursuit, joined by her cop boyfriend, a centaur named Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez) and Corey (Octavia Spencer), a once-powerful and terrifying manticore who now runs a theme restaurant dedicated to her former glories.

On paper, “Onward” sounds like it has everything it needs to be another one of their instant classics but it ultimately lacking the magic, for lack of a better word, of their finest efforts. In their best films—things like “Toy Story,” “Ratatouille,” “WALL*E” and “Inside Out”—they brought together offbeat concepts and explorations of universal themes and emotions that could resonate with a wide swath of viewers regardless of age in such inspired and utterly organic ways that they wound resonating with moviegoers in a deeper manner than most ostensibly serious-minded films dealing with the same themes that you could mention. The trouble with “Onward” is that these elements seem to have been jammed together by filmmakers determined to crank out a piece of product instead of telling a satisfying story. The notion of a land that has forgotten about the magic at its heart sounds intriguing but it is never really dealt with here as anything other than a gimmick allowing the filmmakers to create fantastical-looking characters that can easily be marketed as toys. Likewise, the way that it handles the subject of the two bothers and the issues they still have revolving around the loss of their father is also kind of suspect because it doesn’t really have anything to say on the subject aside from some empty platitudes. There are moments that will no doubt move viewers but in most cases, it will be because they will be reminded of loved ones that they have lost themselves rather than from anything specifically happening on the screen.

There are other problems with “Onward” as well. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the screenplay is going to be content with following the standard-issue quest template rather than finding some kind of twist that might make it into something more. That could have been acceptable if said quest was actually engrossing but it instead goes from episode to episode in fits and starts and only rarely comes upon with an intriguing idea. The voice casting also seems a little off here as well. Both Holland and Pratt are okay but they never manage to bring anything to their blandly conceived characters. Meanwhile, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is pretty much wasted as the nurturing mother who just wants her boys to come home safely. Again, she is okay but how much fun might it have been if she had been allowed to play a character with a repressed darker side, as is the case with Spencer, and let things rip?

Look, there are a number of things about “Onward” that I liked. It has a striking visual style (even if the film doesn’t always know how to take advantage of it) and a few big laughs scattered throughout. It even has an overtly LGBTQ character (well, as overt as a cyclops police officer with the voice of Lena Waithe making a glancing verbal reference to her unseen girlfriend can be) that seems destined to enrage the dopier people on your Facebook feed who are far more invested in the sex lives of animated characters than most might deem healthy. On the grand scale of Pixar efforts, I would easily put it ahead of such misfires as “Monsters University” and the “Cars” series entire. And yet, despite all that, I never felt any real sort of engagement with the film or what it was trying to say—yes, I miss my dad but I assure you those feelings predated this movie. The real problem, when all is said and done, is that this is a film set in a land where genuine magic has been pretty much relegated to the past in the name of instant gratification and it feels more like a product of that world than a critique of it.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=33001&reviewer=389
originally posted: 03/05/20 15:56:54
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USA
  06-Mar-2020

UK
  N/A

Australia
  06-Mar-2020


Directed by
  Dan Scanlon

Written by
  Dan Scanlon

Cast
  Chris Pratt
  Tom Holland
  Julia Louis-Dreyfus
  Octavia Spencer



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