Pixar Takes Tom Holland and Chris Pratt on a Comical Quest with much Heart… and Magic Pants.
DIRECTED BY DAN SCANLON/2020
“Great storytelling is the foundation of every successful animated feature, and no one understood that better than Joe. . . he was one of the architects of Disney’s animation renaissance and Pixar’s emergence.”
Film critic and animation historian Leonard Maltin once said that about the late Joe Ranft, one of the key Pixar creatives responsible for helping forge the company’s high-end reputation and initial string of major successes. Ranft, remembered fondly to this day, was a beloved figure whose memory is honored in the very execution of something as delicate and emotionally raw as the story of Onward.
There was a time when dads were in short supply in Disney movies. Pixar, in time, helped to seal that gap with films such as The Incredibles, Brave, and Inside Out. With those films, and others such as Coco and Toy Story 3 and 4, Pixar also ventured into dealing with even bigger themes than it had been. As in, Bigger Themes. As in, themes of personal independence, the realities of growing up, and even the afterlife.
With the hallowed studio’s latest effort, the trope of the lost father has not only rolled back around, but thematically taken center stage. As one might guess, of all the Bigger Themes that Pixar has dared to address in their accomplished stable of family pictures, this one invites the most outside concern. The question has quickly become, how will Onward play for children who’ve lost a parent?
In the film, two teenage brothers set off on a special quest that, if successful, will earn them less than one day’s worth of quality time with their long-dead dad. This is possible due to Onward’s central conceit of being set in a contemporary fantasy world of magic and legend that’s since become familiarly domestic, even mundane. The world of Onward is essentially our boring world (institutional education over cool apprenticeship, lame theme restaurants over rowdy taverns, and mystical unicorns reduced to garbage-eating raccoon status), but with wizards n’ warrior puns everywhere, such as “Mountain Doom” soft drink signage. (Which, by the way, is the level of clever world-building on which Onward operates. Think more Ralph Breaks the Internet-world where wacky signage is the general extent of the setting’s creativity than, say, the engagingly fleshed-out other worlds of Zootopia or even The Incredibles).
The central brothers, Ian and Barley Lightfoot (voices of Tom Holland and Chris Pratt), are blue elves, each socially awkward in his own way. Ian, the younger one who barely remembers his dad, is a stringy high school introvert who longs to find the nerve to get to know people. Barley, by comparison, is a beefy galoot straight out of the Ronnie James Dio core fanbase: heavy metal patches on a ripped-up vest; a clunker of a van adorned with airbrushed imagery of the time when magic was still legit in their world. Barley’s boisterous nature compensates for his directionlessness, something he further quells with fantasy gaming. (One wonders… in this world, does an obsession with, say, Dungeons & Dragons, Magic the Gathering, and other more niche gaming of that ilk render one something a history nerd as well…?) The brothers never really bonded in this phase of life, but whaddayaknow, here’s just the opportunity they might need.
It all starts one day when their mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, animated indeed) presents the boys with a mystery gift from their late father that she’s been sitting on. Being that it’s everything that the boys need to magically bring their father back to life, albeit for just one day, this is as much a gift for the father as it is his sons. This incantation would grant them a solid day of catching up and, more importantly, squaring away of things left unsaid. And each brother has his own baggage to deal with in this regard.
But, horrors…! Something goes wrong in the initial spell casting, resulting in a half-materialized Dad. In a less family friendly film, “trousers filled with magic” would be something altogether different. But here, it’s literally all that the boys have of their father. Consequently, they must slap together a makeshift “dummy“ top-half to adorn the disembodied but living lower half. The resulting Weekend at Bernie’s-style gag of the sons shepherding around their father in this condition spans the duration of the feature and is Onward’s most fun reward.
In and around the film’s copious comedy, Onward presents its own seemingly insurmountable challenge to its creators: nailing the ending with respect to the very sensitive nature of the material. Though the film is blatantly flawed in other ways (it takes far too long to find its groove), it is the opinion of this reviewer that its conclusion is something that Onward gets exactly correct, with just the right degrees of reality, wish fulfillment, and emotional revelation.
Pixar’s tradition and reputation of precise, creative and satisfying storytelling is the legacy of the aforementioned late Joe Ranft. That Ranft tragically died about fifteen years ago (roughly the age of Ian Lightfoot), was himself a magician, and left behind two kids is, if coincidence, an enchanted one. Add to that the fact that the dad in the film bears a stunning likeness to Ranft, and we might well have an internal tribute to the Pixar forefather and a touching piece for his family. Is it too much for such survivors of parental loss? That’s not for me to declare. I will however go on record as saying that Onward is nothing if not carefully considered this area.
If the makers of Onward have shortchanged the film’s first half (which feels more like a reasonable Dreamworks feature, with its reliance on the celebrity vocal talent’s hammy verbosity and throwaway detail gags) in order to truly stick the final act landing, the tradeoff is worth it. The end result, while missing the mark of the Pixar All-Time Great Films, is nevertheless something special.
Strictly speaking, the company certainly didn’t need to take on the burden of tackling this subject matter... except, in light of the Joe Ranft revelations cited above… maybe it did? In any case, Onward is the rare cinematic quest in which the vitality of the destination outweighs that of the journey. But even a suburban blah reality- one animated by Pixar through a lens of washed-up enhancement, one where the twinkling fairies are more Hell’s Angels than Tinkerbells- the quest of Onward nevertheless evidences true Movie Magic.