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Non-Review Review: Onward

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2020. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Onward fits comfortably in the upper middle range of the Pixar canon.

To be fair, at least part of this is structural. Onward is transparently a road trip adventure. There have been a couple of truly great Pixar movies built around that rough template – Toy Story 2, Up and Inside Out all come to mind. However, Onward does little to disguise its genre elements. Onward is transparently a story about two teenagers who embark on a long journey with a tight schedule that takes them through a series of episodic adventures featuring a host of memorable side characters. There is something very standard about the premise, even against the film’s fantastical backdrop.

To be fair, at least some of that mundanity is intentional. After all, the central hook of Onward is that it unfolds in a magic kingdom (“Mushroomton”) that has eschewed the art of wizardry for the utility of science. So much of Onward derives from the juxtaposition of the mundane and the sublime that it makes sense that the film should be a fairly standard genre template that just happens to follow two magical creatures driving a van with a rock-album-artwork unicorn on the side on a mission to reunite with their resurrected father. However, the plotting is a little too haphazard and too episodic to completely elevate the film.

That said, Onward is consistently charming throughout. Its world and characters always feel well-drawn. More than that, the film coheres marvellously in its third act, when it pushes past that familiar road movie template into the more emotionally astute and mature sort of storytelling that audiences have come to expect from the studio. While Onward doesn’t rank among the studio’s very best, it is well worth seeking out.

There is a tension simmering through Onward. The film is shaped and informed by a strong nostalgia for a lost golden age. Of course, in the case of Onward, that nostalgia is directed at a golden age that is literally fantastical. “Long ago, the world was full of wonder,” explains Wilden Lightfoot in the opening sequence. “It was adventurous. There was magic. But it wasn’t easy to master, so the world found a simpler way to get by.” The native population discovered that it was difficult to cast fire spells, but easy to flick a lightbulb switch.

The basic premise of Onward is built around nostalgia for a time of myths and magic, a cynical rejection of the very idea of modern convenience. There’s something faintly “old man shaking fist at clouds” in this story of a magic kingdom that has been rendered mundane by technological advancement, suggesting that the advent of cars has made centaurs lazy and that electric bulb cheapened light by removing it from the realm of wizards and mages. The film’s yearning for that lost era of magic and mystery almost invites the audience to wonder what Wilden Lightfoot believes vaccinations.

In some respects, there are shades of the least charitable reading of The Incredibles to be found in this nostalgia. At one point in Onward, Ian and Barley Lightfoot encounter a once-powerful mythic creature who has given up offering guidance to those on epic quests, citing the risk of potential litigation. There’s a worrying sense, at times, that Onward believes that the decentralisation of power and placing checks on authority has somehow diminished or belittled this mythical society.

This is admittedly a lot of weight to put on the film’s recurring preoccupation with mythical creatures who have gotten so used to cars and motorbikes that they have forgotten to fly. At the same time, skepticism feels like a healthy response to this nostalgia, particularly given the extent to which attempts to recapture a lost golden age have caused so much uncertainty and horror in contemporary culture and politics. Onward embraces these ideas in a largely uncritical fashion, lacking some the barbed insights that made films like Inside Out so effective.

To be fair to Onward, the film works best when it scales downward, when makes this broader cultural nostalgia personal. Barley Lightfoot spends the entire movie fixated on this lost past. He stages civil protests against redevelopment with such frequency that law enforcement recognise him as “the history buff.” He builds his life around a “historically accurate” tabletop game that he refuses to ever tidy away. Barley is fixated on old ritual and customs, even promising to “knight” his younger brother Ian on his sixteenth birthday.

However, as the story unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that Barley’s preoccupation with the world’s lost history is just an expression of his own personal nostalgia. Barley only has three – later four – memories of Wilden, the father who died when he was very young. Ian was too young to ever properly know their father, and so his own longing is more acute. Barley knew their father just well enough to miss him. For Barley, holding on to the past is ultimately just a way for him to hold on to his father, albeit in a way that saves him the emotional pain of having to acknowledge that sense of loss directly.

It’s a deft piece of characterisation, reflecting the craft and technique that elevates Pixar ahead of many of its contemporaries. Ian and Barley both feel like real and multifaceted characters. Part of this is down to the shrewd casting of Chris Pratt and Tom Holland in the roles, each playing off their established screen personas – Pratt as the manchild who never quite grew up for better (The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part) or worse (Guardians of Galaxy), Holland as the overly anxious and insecure teenager (Spider-Man: Homecoming) desperate to prove himself to a largely absent father (Spider-Man: Far From Home).

All of this probably makes Onward sound much heavier than it actually is. Onward is consistently fun throughout its runtime. As with a lot of Pixar films, the animation is top notch and there is a great deal of care in the way that the world is put together: biker pixies guzzle sherbert sticks like bottles of beer, local high schools adopt mythical creatures like dragons as mascots rather than exotic animals like lions, glass skyscrapers are built to resemble castle keeps and towers rather than the square blocks of our world, trolls operate toll booths for the underpass. Onward is filled to the brim with clever touches like this.

There is an endearing and engaging level of thought put into the mechanics of this world, leading to a series of delightfully amusing rapid-fire sight gags. Similarly, Onward also shrewdly leans into physical comedy. Its characters have mass, and the world they inhabit has substance; the emphasis on slapstick underscores this. The film’s most valuable supporting character is a set of disembodied legs, particular when a makeshift decoy upper body is attached to allay suspicion. The flopping and shifting of that upper body is a reliable source of laughs, leaning heavily into physicality.

It’s very much to Pixar‘s credit that Onward balances tone as well as it does, particularly given the substance of the plot. At its core, Onward is the story of two young boys trying to use arcane magic to reanimate their dead father for twenty-four hours of quality father-son time. The goofy road trip structure of Onward firmly establishes it as midtier Pixar. Onward is often a collection of scenes and setpieces that work well on their own, but it never quite manages the sense of escalation and momentum that defines the studio’s best films. (The best parts of Onward are often easily separated “bits”, rather than cohesive threads.)

At the same time, Onward does remarkable work with its ensemble, particularly the characters beyond Bartey and Ian. Barley and Ian are very much the focus of Onward, and receive the greatest amount of character development and focus, but the film makes a point to include small-but-appreciable arcs for a variety of characters, from an out-of-shape centaur police officer to a mythical creature consigned to operating a family restaurant. Despite limited screen time, the cast of Onwards never feel like one-note characters.

More to the point, Onward benefits from a genuinely resonant climax. While Onward is fun throughout, the final is built around one of those wonderful Pixar third act reveals. Like the best Pixar films, the climax of Onward hinges on a very canny (and entirely organic) reveal of what (in emotional terms) the movie is really about. More than that, it’s a reveal of what the movie has really been about all along. It’s handled with enough grace and skill that it never feels like a twist. It never feels like a rug pull. That’s the film’s true magic trick, and it’s a genuinely sublime one.

Onward is a charming and engaging road trip adventure. That it doesn’t count among Pixar’s very best is more a testament to the studio than a condemnation of the film.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

2 Responses

  1. At least we’ve got a Pete Docter one to look forward to this summer.

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