Wednesday, April 17, 2024

‘Onward’ Never Seems to Go Anywhere

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Onward is a tedious story about two brothers who go on an adventure so they can reconnect with their dead father. It never occurs to the boys that the Mother might want to see him too. Sadly it never occurs to all the men who told this tiresome rote story, either.

I wish I could tell you I was spellbound by Dan Scanlon’s tale of a world filled with fantasy and wonder. Onward should have hit harder than it did consider my propensity for mixing the fantastical with the mundanity of reality. But I found every moment joyless and forced.

The idea behind the world of Onward is as old as the fantasy genre itself. Once the world was filled with magic but magic was hard to learn so people began to rely on technology. To Scanlon and his writer’s credit, they show us this but what they show us undercuts their worldbuilding.

We see two wizards, one instructing the other the ways of spells and cantrips. The student fails to bring light to a small house. Saddened he cheers up when he sees a woman showing off a new invention in her barn, a lightbulb.

I don’t know about you but going from a world that is utterly reliant on magic for everything and jumping immediately to light bulbs is impressive not to mention somewhat miraculous. Onward treats this as an act of laziness and that technology, rather than innovation, is a shortcut. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at what felt like a not so subtle jab at Millenials and other younger generations.

Jumping ahead to the present day and all the fantastical creatures have settled into a modern world not so dissimilar from ours. We meet the Lightfoots, a family of blue-skinned elves, who seem just like any other family from any movie from the eighties. The youngest, Ian (Tom Holland), is turning sixteen. His older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) and his mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) both want to celebrate his entry into manhood.

Laurel wants to have a nice party for Ian with nothing but his friends and some cake. Ian wouldn’t mind that so much but he’s socially awkward and has no friends which to invite. He is the opposite of his older brother. Barley is obsessed with magic and the olden days along with Dungeons and Dragons like board game which he claims is historically accurate. 

Both Barley and Ian miss their dad who died of a mysterious illness. It’s not really a mystery but Scanlon and his team just never tell us what killed the father. We know he was “sick”, “very sick” and “hooked up to tubes”.

Onward is so basic a story it’s more than a little alarming that it took three men to come up with it.  The script by Scanlon, Keith Bunin, and Jason Headley wants badly to be a Dungeons and Dragons homage. But the characters aren’t that interesting and the story isn’t as magical or deep as they think it is. Worse, the three have no idea how to perceive women, in so much that they exist for no other reason but to help the boys achieve their goals.

Their father, Wilden (Kyle Bornheimer) has left a present for when Ian turns 16. A wizard’s staff with a Phoenix gem which allows the boys to bring him back for twenty-four hours. Laurel seems stunned by all this, she didn’t know what the gift was. It never occurred to any of these men that a wife finding out her husband had found a way to come back for a day would want to spend time with Wilden as well. Or for that matter that the father would want to spend time with his whole family-not just his sons.

The boys attempt the spell but only succeed in bringing the bottom half of their father back. So they go on a perilous journey to find another Phoenix stone and bring back the top half of their father. Meanwhile, they have a whole mother right there who they tell none of this too and in fact, try to hide it from her.

The boys encounter one lame visual sight gag after another as they travel across the land with the bottom half of their father. Ian has stuffed a coat and a sweater with some socks so as to give the illusion of an upper body. They put a hat and sunglasses on him and proceed to rip off or pay homage to Weekend at Bernie’s. I’ve seen both Weekend at Bernie’s and I’m here to tell you, neither are good, both are better than Onward.

They grow to learn how much they need each other and how much each has suffered since their dad has died. They talk about all the things they wish they could do with him while remembering all the things they’ve done together. Their loving mother apparently has little to no impact on their lives since all their memories contain not even a mention or trace of her presence.

I don’t know, maybe it’s because I was raised by a single mother for most of my life I couldn’t help but get a sense that Onward didn’t like women.  At the very least has trouble understanding what to do with them if they’re not to be fair maidens or damsels in distress. 

When Laurel finds out her boys have run off to find the missing gem, she immediately goes after them. Ultimately her journey has little to no effect on their adventure. She spends most of the time with the Manticore, Corey (Octavia Spencer), on a road trip. The writers don’t have them bond, well they do, but they never have any meaningful conversations or really do anything to bond over. By the end they are the best of friends because they helped slay a dragon, well not really, young Ian did, they just attempted to. The writer equivalent of “I loosened the lid for you.”

Onward is a tedious and sleepy film that never comes close to anything resembling magic. By the numbers and shallow it is a movie that looks good because no expense was spared on the character design and animation, this is Disney and Pixar after all. But even the designs appear lackluster lacking any of the nuances we come to expect from the groundbreaking studio.

Heck, the cars in Cars have more personality than anyone in Onward. Without a doubt, it may well be the worst Pixar movie I’ve seen.  Not because it is some unwatchable trainwreck but because it is such a forgettable monument of ho-hum storytelling. It has an all-star voice cast but they do nothing for the inner life of the character. Holland is fine, Pratt is just slightly bearable, and Dreyfus is wasted. All of them deserve better material.

I suppose, much like Dolittle, the very young will enjoy Onward. Though, with Dolittle something as ridiculous as a dragon farting on a character while he attempts to pull a bagpipe from the creature’s bowels I can easily imagine children finding hilarious. That one scene, as deeply absurd as it may seem, has more imagination than anything I saw in Onward. If only because it has stuck with me while I struggle to remember a single scene from Onward; a movie I saw the night before writing this review.

For a film that deals with adventure, magic, monsters, and derring-do, it is indescribably safe. It is safe and dull and does nothing surprising in the least. Storytelling is magic, but like the writers of Onward tell us in the beginning, magic is hard. Unlike Ian though, it seems they need more than a day to nail the craft.

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures Studios Motion Pictures

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