Film Reviews

Onward: A Creative Misstep With a Heart of Gold

Pixar’s Onward is as transparently personal as anything in the studio’s catalog. Director/co-writer Dan Scanlon – who previously co-directed Monsters University – lost his father when he was only 1. He only ever knew his dad through old photos and audio recordings. Growing up, it was just him, his older brother, and their mom. So, he came up with a story about a pair of brothers with the same exact background. He even included a heartbreaking scene in which his obvious on-screen counterpart – Tom Holland’s endearingly nerdy Ian – listens to his dead dad’s voice on an old answering machine message and pretends to have a conversation with him. It’s the type of thing a young Scanlon may have done a time or two himself.

(Yes, the scene made me cry, and I don’t care who knows.)

Except, hold on, Onward is a kids movie. So, Ian is a blue elf who lives in a town called New Mushroomton, located in a magical world known as The Realm. When Ian comes home from school, a little dragon greets him at the door like a dog in desperate need of a belly rub, and when he takes out the trash he has to be on the lookout for irritable unicorns. At least 13 other fantasy creatures – including trolls, cyclops, centaurs, sprites, goblins, gnomes, mermaids, and satyrs – make some kind of appearance in the rest of the story.

How Autofiction Merged with Fantasy

How did we get from A to B, though? “My father passed away when I was a year old,” Scanlon told SFX Magazine about how he got from autofiction to pairing the story with fantasy creatures. “Onward started with the idea of: ‘What if I got a chance to spend a day with him?’ That’s what led to magic.”

Sure, but why a magical world that looks much like our own, right down to the way every teenager seems to have a cell phone with a busted screen? “I felt like this is such a personal story, if it’s taking place long ago I’m not really going to connect with that,” Scanlon told SFX. “And then I thought, ‘Could it be a magic piece set now?’ You could have unicorns and all these things in a modern world.”

The hook: What happens to a magical land when it meets technology?

The result: A somewhat depressing world where literal magic exists and winged creatures walk the land and yet people still can’t put down their cell phones and little pixies would rather drive than use the wings on their back. Through a wonderful prologue laying out The Realm’s march toward gentrification, we see the key moments when technological advancements supplanted magic in the world. A wizard with a staff and a book full of complicated spells is no match for a new-fangled thing called “electricity.”

Searching for Magic in the Modernish World

Octavio Spencer voices a former mystical guide who has turned her legendary home into a TGIF-like restaurant equipped with teenagers in mascot costumes.

Magic, however, still exists; the citizens of The Realm just forgot how to use it. Ian’s older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) – who looks and behaves like Jack Black from School of Rock, busted van and all – is among the select few banging that particular drum, excitedly shouting about old wizards, spells, and enchanted locations as those around him wait for him to stop talking. (He has a D&D-like board game he plays with friends, but we never actually see any of them.) It’s enough to make Ian sometimes pretend at school that Barley isn’t his brother. Their mom (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is far more tolerant of her elder son’s eccentricities, but she does at one point voice her frustration with Barley’s post-high school life choices: “This is turning into the longest gap year in history.”

The film at least partially agrees with Barley’s view of magic. “We have all these wonderful things in nature that we just take for granted,” Scanlon told TotalFilm. “It’s a reminder to look around and see the magic, that’s all around us, all the time.”

This isn’t exactly a new sentiment from Pixar. Wall-E – through its heartwarming robot love story – warned the audiences of 2008 about the folly of embracing technology at the cost of losing touch with everything that makes life worth living. However, a company like Pixar, always challenged to come up with universal life lessons that pack a sneaky emotional punch, is bound to repeat itself. One decade’s “technology is going to turn us all into overgrown babies with feeding tubes and constantly-running DVRs” is another decade’s “we’re all capable of literal magic if we just put down our phones and try.”

Scanlon hopes audiences view Onward as feeling a bit more nuanced than that. “Hopefully, when people watch the whole movie, the takeaway isn’t anti-technology or pro-magic,” he told TotalFilm. “The Onward world starts off a little bit overbalanced in the direction of ease and comfort, and people are maybe not challenging themselves to live up to their potential. But the movie becomes more about balance than one thing being bad over the other.”

In fact, if you’re thinking that hard about Onward maybe you’re watching it wrong. One teenager’s quest for magic can simply serve as a metaphorical coming-of-age story where the magic he has to find inside himself is a stand-in for confidence. Find “The Wizard in You,” indeed.

Strangest Pixar Premise Ever?

Not that your average kid is going to pick up on any of that. The film’s tech commentary is the background noise of a foregrounded story about brothers embarking on an adventure together to spend one last day with their father. If only it was as simple as that, though. Even this half of the film leans super hard into high-concept:

Ian and Barley inherit a magical staff with corresponding instructions on how to cast a spell designed to bring their dad back from the dead for one whole day. He left it for them before he died from what sure sounds like cancer, but in the world of Onward, not every creature is actually capable of magic. You either have it in you or you don’t. Naturally, Barley – the true believer – can’t summon any true magic, but Ian – the non-believer – can. In the confusion, however, they only complete half the spell, bringing back their father’s legs. (“I’m pretty sure I remember dad having a top half” is Barley’s panicked cry.)

This leaves them with just 24 hours to travel far into The Realm’s forgotten areas to retrieve the MacGuffin necessary to finish the spell.

The Pixar Moment Hits Hard in This One

Their father can only communicate with them through toe-tapping and eventually has to be pulled along by a dog leash attached to his belt buckle. That leads to some broad Weekend at Bernies-style gags.

Based purely on that admittedly wonky premise, you can theoretically see where Onward is probably going with its message. SPOILER!!, a story about a confident, continually supportive older brother helping his shy, nerdy younger brother through an adventure as their voiceless father – represented as just legs and thus little more than a sperm-carrier – exists on the periphery might just be building to a larger commentary about who really qualifies as a parent in life. Onward’s strength is the way it tricks the audience into buying the fetch quest narrative long enough that when the emotional gut-punch arrives it hits especially hard.

Indeed, ever since Onward’s first screening social media has been flooded with deeply personal stories about lost brothers, dead fathers, and how much this movie deeply touched a lot of people. Speaking as someone who has two older brothers and grew up without constant contact with his biological father, I can definitely say this movie sent me into ugly cry territory.

The critical/audience response has been equally generous

Yet, here we are looking up at the worst, inflation-adjusted opening weekend in Pixar history, and it can’t all be blamed on COVID-19 anxiety. Onward has long-been expected to open on the extreme low end of expectations for an average Pixar title. Even as an outlet like RottenTomatoes pointed to a quantifiably strong critical/audience response, the word of mouth still struggled to overcome the impression that this wasn’t one of the studio’s must-see movies.

Why, though? Film fans online have been complaining for years now about Pixar’s bad case of sequelitis, longing for the days of daring originals, and here was one of the most fuck-it-let’s-just-go-for-it originals in studio history. Two elves in a world like our own but also not like our own have 24 hours to restore their dad’s torso, and their road trip involves a shrinking spell gone wrong, a close encounter with a small army of motorcycle-driving pixies, and an epic fight against a dragon made out of concrete.

Let your freak flag fly, Pixar!

Maybe not quite so high, though?

A Kids Movie for Adults

I saw Onward at a half-full preview screening with a mixture of families, college students, and random people my age. It was halfway through the film before I realized that the only people laughing at the jokes were the adults. The kids were mostly heading for the doors for plenty of bathroom breaks, although there is one particularly tense sequence involving a trust walk over an invisible bridge that had the entire theater in the palm of its hands.

Small sample size theater, I know, but it does speak to a general impression I am getting from the online reaction. An awful lot of adults are out there telling you how great this movie is – very few of them, however, telling you how much their kids liked it. The Ringer’s Jason Gallagher, for example, talked about the experience of taking his young son to Onward, and how they went to Disneyland afterward and his son immediately passed the people on the floor in Onward costumes to take his picture with Woody for the umpteenth time.

I’ve similarly struggled to get my niece and nephew – ages 7 and 12, respectively – to muster any real enthusiasm for Onward. It’s only within the last week that my niece has said she’d even see it. Considering the relative lack of central female characters, she’d had zero interest until now, and the only thing that changed, as far as I can tell, is she remembered moviegoing=popcorn and candy. Now, if they both have to wait to see Onward because of COVID-19, I doubt they’ll be too horribly upset.

This strikes me as Onward’s central failure. “We love making movies and we want to make them engaging and interesting to us as audience members as well as filmmakers,” Pete Docter, Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer told TotalFilm about the studio’s approach to storytelling. “We also know that our kids are going to be watching. So we start with something that is engaging and interesting to us as adults. If I had to explain to you the story [of Soul, which Docter directed and is due later this year] in words, you would scratch your head and wrinkle your nose. But when you can show it visually, even the five-year-olds get it.”

The problem with Onward is you can visualize the story and still end up with five-year-olds scratching their head and wrinkling their nose. Two brothers and their dead dag’s legs go on an adventure together, and they live in a world that has both magic and technology. There’s too much WTF in there, a far cry from “abandoned robot falls in love” or “what if our toys are secretly alive when we’re not around?” If you simplified Onward to just “brothers try to spend one last day with dad” and removed the part about the failed spell and disembodied legs, it would maybe be an easier sell, but then it would arguably be a lesser movie.

You can’t entirely blame this on the studio’s recent behind the scenes drama and transition from the Ed Catmull (president)/John Lasseter (chief creative officer) era to the current Jim Morris/Pete Docter regime. Onward – which started production way back in 2013 – predates all of that. Still, casting an Avenger and a Guardian of the Galaxy to voice Ian and Barley feels like a move designed to shore up a film with some inherent creative challenges. Sure, the premise might seem strange, but it’s Spider-Man and Star Lord together again!

And they’re…actually pretty great. Holland’s already shown a knack for voice acting thanks to Spies in Disguise, and his character here is so similar to his version of Peter Parker it almost hurts. Pratt, meanwhile, brings much of the same energy he delivered in the Lego Movie franchise and turns it up to an 11 but never in an annoying way. Barley is loud but lovable.

Beyond the voice acting, there are multiple sequences in the script clearly written with kids in mind. Shrinking one of your main characters, for example, is an automatically funny bit of “his voice sounds funny now,” and as an ostensible kids movie, there are some nice lessons about loss and the need to believe in yourself.

However, Onward ultimately leaves me with the sense of a concept that strayed too far from the Pixar formula and led the brain trust to try too hard to make the film work for everyone. For example, a secondary storyline about Ian and Barley mom’s and Octavia Spencer’s character combining forces to prevent disaster never feels quite as important. The result is something that is somewhat slight by Pixar standards and not only flies over kids’ heads but also outright confuses them.

It’s also a movie that made me cry, and sent me out of the theater feeling like I should be the one paying them for that free therapy session. So, I’m reluctant to come down too hard on Onward. Plucked from director Dan Scanlon’s own life and dedicated to his family, Onward is one of Pixar’s most personal stories, yet it also feels like one of the studio’s biggest missteps – something best enjoyed by those adults who can relate to Scanlon’s experience, but ultimately forgettable for those who can’t.

I came I saw, I yawned, I cried, and I promptly moved on.

Next Up?

What comes after this deeply personal story about a boy and his brother? Oh, not much, just the meaning of life and existence itself, the make-up of the universe and what goes into making us the people we are. It’s called Soul, and it’s about, well, a jazz magician’s soul who somehow ends up in the wrong place and will need the help of a wacky supervisor (Tina Fey) to put things right again. At the heart of the story is one of those classic Pixar “What-Ifs”: What if our souls exist as gaseous little bubbles in a nether realm where they get to decide what kind of people we become?

Keep swinging big, Pixar.

3 comments

  1. Honestly, the main reason why I have zero interest in the movie is simply the animation. The character designs are boring. The background looks boring. The movements are boring. It doesn’t have an endearing character like Baymax, or a character as energetic as Joy, and if there is the creativity of Zootopia in the design of the environment, nil of this is even hinted at in the trailer, it looks like standard characters in a world which looks like our who just happen to have some magic, too. Yaaaaawn. And perhaps I am unfair, but I think that is why the interest is so low. Personal story or not, high concept or not, this is still an animated movie, damnit, so it should take advantage of BEING one. Starting with some creative designs for elves which don’t stop as blue skin and pointy ears.

    1. I have seen some joke that based on the first trailer, they would have assumed Onward was a Dreamworks movie if not for the Pixar logo – mostly because in premise and especially in literal appearance it just looked like a second-tier family film. I’d say that’s fair.

      1. Honestly, first thought so, too. I was extremely disappointed to realise that this would be the next Pixar release. I know that I might be unfair towards the movie, I haven’t seen it after all, for all I know it has a great story, but I watch animation for the art, damnit. It is bad enough that I get less art in CGI as I am used to with traditional animation, but at least movies like Tangled, Zootopia, Big Hero Six, Inside Out, The Incredibles or Coco tried to do something exciting with it. Onward just looks bland. Like, this Dreamworks movie last year which I still haven’t seen either (honestly, what WAS this with Yeti movies the last two years????) was exciting me more than Onward. I never sought it out, but given the opportunity, I would have watched it, just for the visuals. I can’t claim the same about Onward.

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