US (2020) Dir. Dan Scanlon
Growing up without a parent is hard enough when you knew them for a short while but worse if you didn’t get a chance to know them at all. Obviously, if you did get a chance to meet your deceased parent you’d take it, even if it meant dabbling in the dark arts of magic…
In a world where magic was commonplace this wasn’t such a bad idea but many people found it hard to master the various spells and powers, so the focus was switched to developing technology to make life easier for everyone. Eventually magic became a lost art with almost nobody practicing it anymore though it remains a part of the folklore for some, like elf brothers Barley and Ian Lightfoot.
On Ian’s 16th birthday, the brothers are left a gift by their late father Wilden, given to them by their other Laurel – a magic staff, a Phoenix gemstone, and a visitation spell that will revive their father for 24 hours. However, the spell misfires and only the legs of their father materialised and the gem disintegrates. To complete the spell the boys need another gem so they head off to find one.
Pixar are back with their latest family friendly adventure with a strong moral message, this time setting themselves in a fantasy world rather than a fantasy within a “regular” world. Ordinarily I wouldn’t make a big deal of mentioning such a thing, but after years of making toys, animals, inanimate objects, and vehicles come alive this is something of a change that appears to have made a difference.
This isn’t to say Onward is a bad film as it is not true, but despite the scope the magical world concept should have given Pixar, the potential isn’t fully realised. Perhaps this is because this is about the message of the story rather than the setting, or maybe it is down to missing the shamed John Lasseter and his Miyazaki-inspired eye for whimsy, but something about this film is very “ordinary”.
Writer and director Dan Scanlon gave us Monsters University, the slightly disappointing prequel to the excellent Monsters Inc., a film hampered by a conventional and uninspired story that lacked the magic, wit, and ingenuity of the original. Onward has that same sense of rehashing an old idea with a fresh coat of paint, and doesn’t take full advantage of the world it has create some something with more innovation.
At the risk of sounding lazy, there is a strong Harry Potter vibe to the magical aspect, partially through Ian being a young lad with no confidence who learns to use nascent magic but also in the spells themselves, carrying two word names with a Latin flavour to them. I don’t think it is enough for JK Rowling to sue but it is more tacit influence than a coincidence, but not enough to ruin anyone’s enjoyment of this film.
Despite the story teasing a father and son relationship, this is in fact about the brotherly bond between Ian and Barley, voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt respectively. Both have opposite personalities – Ian is shy, awkward, lacking in confidence, whilst older brother Barley is loud, obnoxious, and very unsubtle. The latter is also a big fan of magic and the folklore of old, which manifests itself through RPG games, making good use of the twist of elves and other fantastic creatures being “normal” beings.
Barley’s rambunctious slacker character coupled with his nerdier side covers his sense of protecting history, for he is often in trouble with the law, personified by his mother’s new boyfriend, a centaur police officer Colt Bronco, due to his protests against knocking down ancient landmarks. Unlike Ian, Barley got to know his father for a few years before his death, thus his interest in magic and the past was piqued early on.
So it is with some disappointment to Barley that it is Ian who is able to wield the magic staff and not him. However, as the one knowledgeable about magic, Barley can guide his brother as to which spells to use to when needed, which happens to be quite a lot once their quest for the other Phoenix gem begins in earnest.
First they need a map from a Manticore and there just happens to be one running a restaurant in town, voiced by Octavia Spencer. However, she is long retired from being a fierce warrior and refuses to help the brothers or lend them the map, so they borrow a kiddies placemat with the clues filled in by a customer which amounts to the same thing. The Manticore did warn the lads about where to look on their journey but forgot to mention the curse.
Kids will find the thrills and spills fun as the brothers, half their father, and Barley’s trusty but rundown van Guinevere as will adults as there is seldom a dull moment, though it is all constructed to serve Ian’s growth and exceeding his expectations upon turning 16, and the bond with Barley which goes through the usual ups and downs. A worthy parable is shared but it comes at the expense of the humour and wink-wink references that us oldies would get that always made Pixar film such a universal experience.
Visually this is great to look at as you’d expect, but I wonder if we have reached the point where CGI animation rooted in the traditional cartoon style has peaked and there is nowhere else to go. In other words, this doesn’t quite stand out as a groundbreaking step forward for Pixar in the same way many of their other works have, and feels like just another CGI animation.
Onward does what it has to as a piece of enjoyable entertainment to pass the time for 100 minutes and will keep the kids quiet, but older audiences may find the Pixar magic is starting to fade a bit, if you’ll pardon the pun.