ONWARD – Review
For animation feature fans it’s been a long cold couple of months since the Christmas Day release of SPIES IN DISGUISE (not the clump of coal many thought, but not a big award-grabber). Well, the drought is finally over. This weekend sees the first big studio feature animated flick of 2020, and we’re not counting SONIC THE HEDGEHOG or CALL OF THE WILD which had CGI stars (or co-stars) working with humans against mostly real backdrops. And it’s the “jackpot” for fans because it’s from the talented folks from Emeryville, CA: Pixar. Though it’s a tad early (they generally release their works in Summer or close to the end of the year), it’s because it’s the first time in five years that they’ve got two flicks in the same year (SOUL arrives in June). Oh, and another reason to be interested: this is the first original, non-sequel in over two years (it was franchise time in 2018 for INCREDIBLE 2 and last year’s Oscar-winning TOY STORY 4). Yes, new territory for Pixar, but the setting is familiar from a couple of live-action box office blockbuster trilogies from the last couple of decades. But enough of this teasing and pondering, to quote one of this story’s characters. “Let’s shift into ONWARD!”.
As the film opens, we’re given some backstory on this world fairly close to our own. Ah, but this is a realm of fantasy, at least back in it’s “olden days”. Warriors and adventurers teamed with wizards and sorcerers to battle (now considered) mythical beasts on epic quests. Well, until magic went out of the public’s favor. They instead turned to the much-easier science-based technology. Light bulbs led to automobiles, and so forth. Fantasy creatures still exist, but within an urban/suburban setting much like ours. The plot focuses on one such family, of point-eared bluish elves, the Lightfoots. Ian (Tom Holland) lives a happy life in New Mushroom Town with his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt), who’s in a long “gap year” before starting college, and single mom Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), who’s dating a straight-laced centaur cop named Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez). He’s a socially awkward high-schooler, while his boisterous big “bro’ yearns for the magic of the past, trying to save old relics like the stone fountain. On Ian’s sixteenth birthday he recieves a most unexpected gift from his father who died before he was born. Before passing he told Laurel to present it to him on this special days. What’s the long thin item wrapped in a blanket? It’s a wizard’s staff along with a super rare Phoenix jewel as its top piece. Plus handy instructions including a phrase that will bring back Pop for a limited time (the next sunset). Naturally, Barley wants to cast the spell, but after multiple failed attempts, Laurel leaves to pick up the birthday cake. Then Ian decides to give it a go. And it works…halfway. From the Hush Puppy-style shoes to the belt on his polyester slacks. Half a Dad. And the jewel is toast. Of course, Barley has a plan. He and Ian (and partial Pop) will embark on a quest to locate another Phoenix Stone. But first, they must get its location from the ferocious beast-warrior of legend, the Manticore (Octavia Spencer). Simple eh? Except for a lil’ curse on said gem.
In their first pairing outside the Marvel Movie-verse, Holland and Pratt (Spidey and Starlord) make a most endearing “Odd Couple” of siblings. As the shy Ian, Holland amps up the Peter Parker anxiety, while giving him a most compelling desire, that yearning for just a few minutes with his patriarch. Plus he hits all the right comedic notes as he tries to cover for his impulsive big Bro. And Pratt adds lots of bluster and energy to the enthusiastic, ultra-caffeinated Barley. He seems to have enough confidence for the both of them (with tons to spare). But there’s a softer side, as he speaks of his own fading memories of dad, and later when he’s unintentionally hurt by Ian, one that nearly saps his spirit. Louis-Dreyfus makes for a most sympathetic mother, she helps her boys despite her own sorrow over her loss so many years ago. Laurel’s frustrated with her guys but calls on a bottomless wellspring of courage to protect them when needed. Almost matching the manic Pratt is Spencer, who’s so busy juggling her modern responsibilities (maybe plate spinning is more apt) that she almost forgets her true nature, buried away until Barley reminds her of it. And kudos to Rodriguez for his inspired comic turn as the very “un-cool” cop named Colt. He cares greatly for the Lightfoot family but just can’t connect with those kids (maybe that nervous whinny-chuckle is to blame).
Dan Scanlon, veteran director of MONSTERS UNIVERSITY, keeps the action rolling along while never losing the focus of the relationship between the two very different Lightfoot brothers. Of course, this is greatly aided by the witty script he co-wrote with Jason Headley and Keith Bunin. The only real problem with the project is its somewhat dated feel. Aside from nods to the Rings and Hobbit trilogy, the winks at the D&D role-playing games make the flick seem about 40 years late to the party. Fortunately the look of the film is lush with dazzling backgrounds, ranging from the sprawling vistas to the often grungy urban streets (a constantly packed highway with zooming cars is almost as scary as a similar sequence in GOOD BOYS). Then there are the details on the characters themselves. I thought Barley’s denim vest festooned with “heavy metal” patches accented with a plastic wrist cast truly defined his personality. This extends to the terrific supporting players, from a biker gang called the Pixie Dusters to the Gollum-like sleezy pawn shop owner. But the eye candy can’t make up for “wheel-spinning” retreads of Indiana Jones booby traps, which delay the slam-bang climax involving a very unique take on the dragon-staple of the dice-rolling role games, a big change from the Lightfoot family pet dragon, a serpent-spin on Dino from the classic TV cartoons. The film’s strong point is the brothers’ bond, perhaps just as fierce as the FROZEN sisters, and that longing for just one more day with a departed dad. That story thread elevates this above most of the lackluster manic forgetttable noisy nonsense that’s passed off as family entertainment. So proceed ONWARD to the multiplex, already and let it cast its spell on you.
3 Out of 4