Saturday, 29 February 2020

Review: Onward

Cert: U / 107 mins / Dir. Dan Scanlon / Trailer

Odd times, we live in. The new Pixar movie opens with a 5-minutes Simpsons short, an acknowledgement that the former 20th Century Fox is now part of the Disney brand. Essentially a silent film, Playdate With Destiny centres on Maggie as she falls in love with a toddler at the local park. It's a fairly sweet affair but far from the humour and even acerbic warmth that the show is capable of at its best.

Which, it turns out, is a fitting overture.

Set in the present-day of a parallel world inhabited by mythical creatures but which has forgotten magic, Onward follows adolescent elves Ian and Barley Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) as they embark on a quest to be reunited for a day with their father who died fifteen years earlier. The spell which can enable this has already been partly cast, meaning the pair are accompanied by the sentient legs and feet of their dear papa, which they bulk out to approximate humanoid form using a stuffed sweatshirt, cap and sunglasses, bumbling around for comic effect. So think of Lord Of The Rings by way of Weekend At Bernie's.


It's may also be worth noting that this classically structured adventure makes distinct nods in the direction of Indiana Jones, Gremlins, Ghostbusters and even Back To The Future along the way. And while all this is fun, it's also the heart of the film's problem: Onward feels like an affectionate series of homages rather than its own unique story. The vocal performers are well cast*1, the story is consistently funny and charming, and the animation and music are as perfect as you'd hope, but there are only occasional flashes of the cinematic magic upon which Pixar basically wrote the spell-book.

The film opens efficiently, and sets all its story-markers and callbacks in plain sight. It's more than a little 'Hero's Journey 101', yet in a U-rated adventure that's no bad thing. But while this movie regularly ticks the right boxes, they feel like boxes in someone else's list. From an emotional point of view, this is Pixar's b-game, even though that's still more than many animation studios manage with their best efforts.


All told, the fantasy setting perhaps feels a little too on-the-nose (although I love the idea that Warhammer-type games exist in a world already populated by elves, centaurs and dragons), so the high-concept magical elements of the story feel more expected than exceptional. And when you factor in the weird release strategy in the UK, a Disney animation with an A-list voice cast which lands for previews in the week after half-term (ensuring that the general release will miss that window completely), it suggests a worrying lack of enthusiasm on Disney's part.

If it sounds like I'm being unduly harsh on what is a more-than-decent adventure movie, it's only because the creators have set their own bar higher than this. Then, like all the best quests, the treasure wasn't the macguffin after all. That's not to say the rewards mean any less, but the feeling persists that maybe you've travelled way further than you needed to.

Because now that animation has advanced to the point where Pixar can make anything, why isn't Anything as exciting as we'd hoped*2?

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
I think we've covered that...

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
Just about, as it'll probably lose no small amount of its magic on the small screen.

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
This will be a good rainy-afternoon DVD.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Let's not go mad.

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
Unlikely as I have no really strong feelings on the film either way.

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
Not that I heard.

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: The voice of Major Bren Derlin is in this.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 You've got to hand it to Chris Pratt though, he effortlessly manages to play his one recurring character again even when we can't see his actual face. [ BACK ]

*2 Although I'm just going to come out and say it: Ian Lightfoot with his coiffured hair, sticky-out ears and plaid shirt, unsure who he's supposed to be and learning how to create magic while fighting through the emotional conflict of daddy-issues? That's young George Lucas.

You read it here first. [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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