A film review by Craig J. Koban April 14, 2020


2020, PG, 103 mins.

Chris Pratt as Barley Lightfoot (voice)  /  Tom Holland as Ian Lightfoot (voice)  /  Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Laura Lightfoot (voice)  /  Octavia Spencer as Manticore (voice)  /  Mel Rodriguez as Officer Colt Bronco (voice)  /  Ali Wong as Officer Gore (voice)  /  Lena Waithe as Officer Spector (voice)  /  John Ratzenberger as Construction Worker Felix (voice)  /  Tracey Ullman as Grecklin (voice)

Directed by Dan Scanlon  /  Written by Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, and Keith Bunin

Pixar's ONWARD is easily one of the studio's oddest animated films, but it's also one of its more regrettably subpar and forgettable efforts.  

Their visual maestros and artists have undoubtedly made yet another endlessly gorgeous film on a level of technical craft, not to mention that the underlining story here about the bond between siblings and how families experience great difficulties in letting go of deceased members has potential for dramatic potency.  But ONWARD is also a film about fantasy creatures living in the modern day world, showcasing two elf brothers dragging around the spiritual, reanimated corpse of their dad (but only from the waist down) on a quest to locate a magical artifact that will make him alive and whole again for one day.  

So...yeah...odd, indeed. 

I really shouldn't think of WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S at any time while watching a multi-million dollar costing Pixar animated film, but I got serious BERNIE-ian vibes while seeing this narrative unfold of two brothers parading around town with half of their dead daddy.  That, and the infusion of fantasy in contemporary society also made me think of another lousy film in Netflix's BRIGHT from a few years back.  Dungeon's & Dragons ethos also figures in heavily into the fabric of the storytelling.  To be fair, it's quite welcoming that this newest Pixar film marks their first non-sequel/non-franchise piece since COCO.  After films like the decent THE INCREDIBLES 2, the alright, but inessential series extender TOY STORY 4, and the thoroughly disposable CAR series, I was happy to see the studio dig their creative teeth into something fresh.  Mournfully, ONWARD feels bland, stale, and lacking in overall magic when compared to the finest computer animated films from Pixar.  Episodic in structure and suffering from middling plotting and awkward world building, ONWARD tries hard to leave an impressionable mark, but instead comes off like one of those placeholder studio projects on the way towards better things to come. 

ONWARD is set in the once magical land of New Mushroomton, which looks a lot like our world of today, but with mystical creatures substituted in for people.  At least the multitude of races here get along in relative peace and harmony, ranging from elves centaurs, cyclopses, and manticores, to name a few.  Cities are still lined with dazzling skyscrapers that typify our metropolises, and the suburbs here are quaint and inviting (granted, the homes are made of giant mushrooms).  TVs, computers, smart phones, and all modern technological conveniences exist here as well, but with sly little fantastical twists and alterations.  I found myself mostly engaged throughout ONWARD with staring at all of the background details that satirically flesh out this world, and there's amusement to be had in showing how a world void of any magic with magical creatures now survives and thrives (fairies, for instance, can't fly anymore, so they've opted to riding Harleys, and one neighborhood cop - a centaur - can't gallop at full speed in pursuit of criminals).  These details are nice and cute, but more times than not I found myself more keenly focusing on them instead of the characters and story as a whole, which I'm assuming was not the intended effect. 



Oh, and the Dungeons & Dragons RPG game exists in this world too (how meta), but goes by a different name - Quests of Yore - and is adored by an elf named Barley (Chris Pratt), who's so taken in by this gaming world that he has a van painted with a purple hued unicorn.  His younger elf brother in Ian (Tom Holland, Pratt's co-MCU star) is everything his sibling is not: terribly shy, insecure, and horrible in social circles.  Both live with their mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), but their father died years ago, leaving a hole in both of their hearts for quite some time.  Ian receives a birthday gift from his mom in the form of his dad's magical staff, but unbeknownst to her it contains a special gem attached to it and instructions as to how to bring the father back to life, but only for a twenty four hour period.  Ian decides to give the spell a go, but to his absolute frustration he's only able to materialize his father from the waist down.  Knowing that time is of the essence, Ian and Barely go on a long D&D inspired series of fetch quests to locate a new gem that will give them the power to fully resuscitate their deceased dad...but they have less than 24 hours to it, after which time they'll lose any power to see him again forever. 

Directed in a workmanlike fashion by Dan Scalon (MONSTERS UNIVERSITY), ONWARD is yet another in a long line-up of animated films - too long to mention here - that dabbles into heartbreaking themes of personal and family loss, but it at least tries to do something interesting with such ideas in terms of allowing the story to explore that tantalizing what-if scenario that's at its core: If able to, wouldn't you want to spend one last day with a dead parent?  There's obvious evidence to suggest that Scalon was aiming for something deeply personal here that he hoped would strike a powerful emotional core with audience members, but the execution here fails to have any lingering weight, mostly because the whole enterprise seems achingly safe and soft pedaled to appease as wide of an audience as possible.  That's not to say that a family entertainment should go all dark and somber, but rather that the makers here don't deal with death with any intriguing complexity.  I guess that's hard to do when a dead character with half a body is used her for sight gags and pratfalls throughout. 

The ghostly father here is basically shown as a pair of pants with shoes (the brothers dress up his upper body to pass him off as a whole elf, which is where the WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S parallels rear their ugly head).  Some of this is good for a chuckle or two, but it became a bit more tiresome than funny after awhile.  Plus, it works against what the makers here are thinking is a seriously introspective handling of its themes of love and loss.  There's also not much of a fleshed out story here when all is said and done, with a majority of ONWARD casually cruising from one vignette to the next (some that work, some that don't), giving the whole proceedings a video game sense of forward momentum (journey to a vantage point, face obstacles, find item required, then rinse and repeat several more times).  I did enjoy one detour the brothers make at a local all ages restaurant that's managed by a once fierce and intimidating manticore (Octavia Spencer), whose character is like one of those aging prize fighters that fell from grace and now tells stories of their past conquests to tavern patrons.  Predictably, she finds herself helping the boys as well on their quest, mostly because she desperately needs to reclaim her long lost battle hardened intensity. 

ONWARD deserves some merit for his voice casting, and the Star Lord and Spider-Man team-up here with Pratt and Holland respectively displays ample performance chemistry and helps maintain some interest in the material.  The film works better as an exploration of their loving brotherhood than it actually does as a tale of fathers and sons (the two actors expressively give it their all here, despite the more negligible scripting material given).  And, yes, ONWARD is a visual dazzler and feast for the eyes.  It stands to reason that with the unlimited financial and tech recourses at Pixar's obvious disposal that each one of their new films should look more polished than what's come before.  Alas, vibrant eye candy and some spirited voice work can't save a film that commendably aims to crowd please, but mostly falls depressingly short in the energy, innovation, and overall storytelling department.  I know of people that have been deeply moved by ONWARD, especially during its final act, but I simply didn't find myself emotionally connecting with the characters here or their quest.  This Pixar enterprise is likeable enough is small dosages as an easy going time waster that'll modestly appease the most fervent of young and old studio fans.  As for the rest of you looking for the old Pixar magic of old?  This one could have used a few move waves of a wizard's wand in the conception and execution phase. 

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