Pixar’s magical family drama suffers some serious misadventures before mercifully finding its footing.
I’m glad that Onward is available digitally. It meant that I could apply the fast forward button liberally. Had I been confined to a theater, I probably would have just walked out. As it was, I was able to make the maddeningly annoying first half of the movie speed by while actually finding the compelling part at the end. The visual quality of Onward may be one of Pixar’s most breathtaking efforts; the jerky pacing, unlikable characters, and cookie cutter plot make it one of their most tedious.
Two teenage elf brothers, Ian and Barley Lightfoot (voices of Tom Holland and Chris Pratt), get an unexpected opportunity to spend one more day with their late dad and embark on an extraordinary quest aboard Barley’s epic van Guinevere. Like any good quest, their journey is filled with magic spells, cryptic maps, impossible obstacles, and unimaginable discoveries.
Learning by Rote.
For a movie set in a magical land of elves, dragons, and centaurs, there’s very little imagination put into the story. It’s The Goonies, except the macguffin our heroes are searching down will let them see their deceased father for a day instead of stop greedy land developers. Along the way the story smashes through adventure fantasy tropes like a bored Dungeon Master recycling last week’s quest line. The character’s populating the story are also generic to the point of being tiresome. I can see why they hired who they did: Tom Holland is essentially playing Peter Parker, if Peter was suddenly dropped into Hogwarts, and Chris Pratt is playing Starlord…if Starlord had been recast by Jack Black.
The Wind that Shakes the Barley Until He Shuts Up.
I could not stand either of our leads. Ian is such a stereotypical shy guy that he’s essentially one note. One note you’ve seen a million times in much better coming of age stories. He makes beige wallpaper seem exciting and vibrant in contrast. And Barley…man I wanted to exile Barley to the bog of eternal stench, never to return.
The film seems hellbent on lifting Jack Black’s character from Brütal Legend right down to his outfit. He’s got Black’s cocksure/”seldom right but never in doubt” persona, just lacking the charm Black manages to pull off when strutting around like a ponce. He’s mouthy, headstrong, a constant distraction, and a walking misadventure. His renaissance faire posturing is utterly insufferable. The film tries to humanize him and redeem him as not a total screwup…but he is. He’s a complete blowhard screwup for 90% of the film, so showing flashbacks of how he was a doting big brother to Ian in childhood near the end of the film doesn’t do it for me. I get that he’s posturing to paper over his insecurity. It doesn’t really make him any more tolerable.
It’s Pretty, At Least.
I was impressed by the quality of the animation. Pixar takes their level of polish to the max here. The colors are vibrant, the settings are gorgeous, and the character animations are unbelievably expressive and fluid. I’d have to say next to Coco, this is their prettiest movie to date.
The visual wizardry extends to the character design. While these are all recognizable mythological creatures, Onward gives them a unique stamp. They’re a little schlubby actually, which is a nice twist. You’re so used to seeing majestic centaurs, refined elves, and cute pixies. Seeing pudgy elves, dumpy ogres, and biker-gang pixies at least gives the film a patina of originality.
Young children and tweens will probably find Onward to be a decent experience (thought I wonder how much of the D&D references will sail over their heads.) Kids likely won’t mind the annoying bits or recognize all of the recycled story-lines, and the climax of the film does provide enough fun and action before the saccharine swan song ending to leave them with a sugar high on their way out of the theater.
It would seem kinda odd to point this out. It is after all an animated movie. The problem is that Pixar usually does so much more with their movies. There’s a layer for kids and a layer for the kids-at-heart, and a level of sophistication that an adult can appreciate and children can grow into. Onward doesn’t really have that layer. Despite being about the grieving process of losing a parent, the film doesn’t really do more than lean on it for pathos.
For a film that’s so filled with cliche and stereotypes that I could call every story beat in advance, it seems appropriate that the film’s underlying message can be summed up with the laziest of chestnuts: maybe the real treasure was the friends we made along the way. Sigh.