Onward, Pixar’s 22nd animated movie in 25 years, is about two brothers who embark on a quest to find their father, a man who died of cancer when one of the brothers was very young, and before the other was even born.
Ian (Tom Holland) is the younger brother. He just turned 16 and is a typical awkward, suburban teen trying to make friends, find his place in the world, and navigate life without a father who he’s never met but still misses very much.
Barley (Chris Pratt) is the older brother enjoying a gap year at home. He’s a boisterous young man, large in stature and personality, into magic and myths and legends and games like Dungeons & Dragons. Barley’s “Your chariot awaits thee!” enthusiasm not only annoys Ian — who’s more quiet and circumspect, it embarrasses him.
If none of this sounds very special or unique, the change-up is Pixar’s world building, which is pretty fantastic. You see, this is a world where magic and dragons and spells and manticores and centaurs are real. In fact, Ian and Barely are purplish elves.
The beauty of this approach is what co-writer and director Dan Scanlon does with it. All the myth, wonder, magic, and can-do adventurism that comes with such things are now gone — erased by technology, gadgets and strip malls. Life is so easy in the suburb of New Mushroomton, no one uses their natural gifts anymore. Rather than gallop, the centaurs drive cars. Rather than fly, the fairies ride motorcycles. Rather than practice magic, the wizards have iPhones and electricity and every other modern convenience that makes life easy, that makes effort and ingenuity pointless.
And then there’s the horrific corporatism and nanny-statism…
Things are so bad that Manticore’s Tavern, a place buried deep in the woods where young men once visited to test themselves, to test their courage and physical prowess, is now a generic Chuck E. Cheese type place, where the once fierce Manticore (Octavia Spencer) serves pizza and refuses to send young men out on quests for fear of a lawsuit or OSHA fine.
So yes, Onward has a lot to say about modern American society, about consumerism and the Generica of chains and franchises, all of which I obviously agree with.
Onward also has something to say about the vital importance of fathers, or at least the importance of a strong, male role model in a boy’s life, a theme Hollywood lost interest in many moons ago.
Normally I avoid animated movies. Normally I avoid fantasy movies. I dislike both genres. So, when I learned Pixar made something that was both animated and fantasy, the masochist in me just had to check it out.
Had I not enjoyed Onward, my biases being what they are, and out of fairness, I probably would have avoided writing a review. But it was pretty good. A little soggy in the middle; all that obnoxious video-gamey stuff — gotta get the thing to open the thing to get the other thing that opens the big thing please kill me now.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the central relationship between the two brothers and was legitimately moved when the story suddenly flipped on its head to reveal that — at least emotionally — the story was always about something else.
Naturally, in this era of anti-art woke, you will have to prepare yourself for a clumsy, totally unnecessary moment where a minor character vomits some clumsy exposition so we all know she’s a lesbian.
Besides, I thought the lady biker gang were all the lesbians…
God, I’m old.