REVIEW: Onward (2020)

onward_posterIn a world where magic gave way to suburbia, two teenage brothers – Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) – go on a quest in order to bring back their father for one day.

Onward is the latest feature film from Disney’s prestigious Pixar Animation Studios, partially released internationally before a global coronavirus outbreak closed down most of the cinemas. Here in Australia it was scheduled for release this Thursday; it is now going out for sale or rent a day later, and available to Disney+ subscribers by the end of April.

It is heartbreaking fate for any film to be denied a proper theatrical release, with a large screen showcasing the years of work by its large team of artists. It seems particularly unfair for a Pixar film, still considered pretty much the most highly regarded line of animated features in America (although the last 10 years has seen the Walt Disney Animation Studios gain a lot of ground). It is terrible news for director Dan Scanlon, his cast, and his crew.

Onward presents its audience with a world that was once home to wizards and dragons, magical quests, legendary warriors, and enchanted weapons. When that world discovered electricity, however, it effectively democratised magic; no need to learn a light-creating spell when you can simply flick a switch. The film itself is set in somewhere akin to contemporary America. Two teen brothers – the geeky Ian and the heavy metal loving Farley – are given a magical staff left to them by their late father, and a spell with which they can return him to life for one day. When the spell misfires they only manage to bring back their father’s lower half, and must find the spell’s ingredients within a day to have any chance of bringing back the rest.

There is a lot of inventive stuff in Onward: plenty of small gags and references in the background, and funny re-imagining of all of the stock fantasy adventure content found in fairy tales, children’s literature, and Dungeons & Dragons source books. In many ways it feels like a deliberate gift to geeks and nerds. It even stars two actors most famous for their work with Marvel Studios: Spider-Man star Tom Holland and Guardians of the Galaxy lead Chris Pratt. Holland is generically pleasant, and does have a good voice for animation. Pratt weirdly plays Farley with such a debt to Jack Black that it is a wonder Pixar did not simply hire Black and save on the effort. Other cast members include Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Octavia Spencer.

Here is, as the great critic Mark Kermode is wont to say, the thing: by Pixar’s standards Onward is a lazy picture. The studio found its phenomenal early success for a couple of good reasons, but one major one was that it developed its features based on imaginative high concepts. What if children’s toys came to life when the kids weren’t looking? What if the monsters in your closet were doing it as a blue collar job? What if a rat wanted to be a chef? There have been a lot of ‘what-ifs’ through Pixar’s 25-year history, and generally the better the concept the better the film. Survey the back catalogue and the worst films have generally been their sequels, since – the Toy Story saga aside – they’re simply not delivering fresh ideas.

Onward struggles because it lacks a clean one-sentence concept. ‘What if a magical kingdom evolved into modern suburbia?’ describes a setting, but it fails to imply a specific action. The action that is presented is a generic quest, but it tells something that has been seen many times before. Its character development and story beats are well-worn. It’s a safe bet for a broadly enjoyable picture, and by-and-large it is an enjoyable enough watch, but it is far from Pixar at its best. To a degree they are victims of their own success. When the animated lamp starts jumping onto screen at the start of their films I am expecting a Monsters Inc or an Inside Out. Onward is more of a Monsters University (coincidentally also directed by Scanlon): no surprises, no innovations, and simply an acceptable level of family entertainment.

This is not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a lazy one. Its concept is loose and under-cooked. Its narrative is predictable and easy to guess in advance. It will entertain plenty of people, but it probably will not entertain them quite as much as it should. There is another Pixar feature, Soul, scheduled for release some time later in the year. I get the distinct impression that it’s Soul that is the main event. Onward, good but not great and unlikely to linger in the heart like a Toy Story or Finding Nemo, feels like it has been delicately brushed out of the side door.

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