What I admire most about Onward
is that it tries to tell a real story, rather than sell merchandise to kids like so many Hollywood animated features. That being said, the film's story never quite grabbed me the way that I think it was supposed to. Its heart is in the right place, but it's episodic and split up into a series of individual adventures that never created a completely whole journey for me. This is not really a bad movie in any way, but it's not to the level of Pixar's best, and is probably their most forgettable film since The Good Dinosaur
For me, the most disappointing aspect is the film's setting, which is wonderful in a lot of ways but is never truly exploited or explored by the filmmakers. The setting is a fantasy world made up of mystical creatures that used to be filled with magic and wonder. But, over time, the creatures and beings that inhabit this world became disenchanted with magic, because it was so complicated and hard to pull off. They started to invent technology that could do the same things much easier and faster.. And so, the movie introduces us to a world that looks like ours, but is inhabited by the kind of creatures you usually see in fantasy literature. We see mermaids with smart phones, a biker gang made up out of pixies, centaurs serving on the local police force, and a Manticore (voiced by Octavia Spencer) who has given up on sending travelers off on noble quests, and instead is the head of a gimmicky family restaurant.
My mind always gets excited when a movie shows me a setting or a world that I have never seen before, and the opening moments of Onward
got me very inspired. However, it would seem that co-writer and director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University
) only saw potential for some throw away gags when it came to his world. After showing off some imaginative visuals that mix our world with a made up one, the movie kind of forgets to explore it in any detail, and instead focuses on a standard plot that tries to be heartfelt, but simply didn't go deep enough for me. The plot concerns two elf brothers, the timid and insecure Ian (Tom Holland) and the brash and boisterous Barley (Chris Pratt). They live in a suburb with their widowed mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), whose husband died when Ian was very young. Ian has no memories of his father, other than the pictures and assorted things he's been able to find about him, while Barley only has three (maybe four, he later admits) memories of him.
On Ian's 16th birthday, Laurel gives both of the boys a gift left behind by their father - an ancient wizard's staff. Turns out even though dad was an accountant, he was interested in the old ways of magic, and wanted to pass that knowledge down to his sons. Included with the staff is a spell that can supposedly bring someone back to life for only 24 hours before the magic fades away. The brothers perform the spell without their mother's knowledge, but their attempt to bring dad back goes wrong when the spell they cast is incomplete. It only brings back the bottom part of their dad, so he appears as only a waist and a pair of legs that can walk around on their own. Ian and Barley realize that they need to find a mystical stone to place in the staff so that they can complete the spell, and so they go off in search of the gem, taking their father with them, whom they lead around on a leash, and even give him a crudely made upper half made up out of sunglasses, a bulky coat and a lot of padding. Watching their dad stumble and fumble around after his sons, I couldn't help but think that the visuals of his clumsy movement and being dragged around everywhere was inspired by Terry Kiser's performance as the deceased Bernie Lomax in Weekend at Bernie's
According to director Scanlon, Onward
was inspired by his own childhood, as his father passed away when he was very young, and he knew little about him. You can definitely sense the attachment that he has to this material in some of the film's very best moments. However, it's what's outside of these moments that are a bit disappointing. The adventure elements of the story don't add up to a whole lot, and are usually comprised of car chases that are not very exciting, run-ins with forgettable characters (the biker gang comprised of pixies is a funny idea, but didn't work as well as it should with me) and a lot of wasted potential. I kept on waiting for the movie to develop a satirical edge and really take a humorous look at our world and what it would be like if it were inhabited by dragons and snake people, but it never truly grabs on to the potential. We don't get to see much of the world the filmmakers have created here, as a majority of the film takes place in Barley's broken down old van.
The main heart of the film obviously belongs to the bond that Ian and Barley share, and their desire to spend just one more day with their father. Again, I found myself wanting to be swept up by the emotion of this angle, but it never quite happened. It's not that there is no emotion at all, rather that it never came across as strong to me as I expected it to. There is a lot of good things here, and both Holland and Pratt create a likable brotherly bond. I liked the contrast of the two main characters, how Ian is insecure and always making personal lists of ways that he can improve himself, and how Barley is obsessed with magic, loves table top role playing adventures, and lives for classic rock music. I simply was never as involved as I felt I should be. I found the whole experience watching the film to be likable, but somewhat bland at the same time. It never offends, and it has some scattered good moments, but to me, the whole thing seemed a bit muted. Not enough that I can completely write the thing off, but also not enough for me to label it a success.
So, don't read this as a completely negative review. Onward
does have a lot to recommend, but it simply never grabbed me. I was never bored, but also not as engaged as I wanted to be. I guess I would label this as a near miss for me. The movie definitely tells a heartfelt story, but at least to me, it never came to life like I wanted it to.