Disney/Pixar's Onward-A bumpy ride!by Todd Pickering, contributing writer
Disney/Pixar's latest offering is "Onward". In this film, the typical fairy-tale trope of the protagonist losing their mother and/or both parents is replaced by a missing father figure. At this point of the the Pixar experience we have a preconceived notion that we are going to cry. This is an expectation that we hold of any Pixar property and go into the theatre believing that we will be swept away emotionally. Director Dan Scanlon seems to know this with this picture and walks a simpler line. There are problems to overcome in the form of a character without an upper body and a very clunky sub-plot with The Manticore (voiced by Octavia Spencer). But that does not take away from the lovely performances of elf brothers Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) in an action/adventure driven film.
In a rather uninspired prologue we get a narrator showing us how this ancient land populated by magical creatures found learning magic a tedious task and eventually opted for a land of cars, pollution, light bulbs and sedentary life-style. In other words, our world but populated with cool blue elves, cyclops and centaurs. This theme is akin to another Pixar property, "Wall-E" but thankfully doesn't try to beat this point in again and takes a much different direction in theme.
Ian wakes up on his 16th birthday to be greeted by his supportive Mother (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and older, goofy brother Barley. This scene gives us an introduction to our main players wrapped in a classic comic bit where Ian's breakfast is plucked out of his hands, knocked on the floor or eaten by his pet dragon and knocked out of his hands. My eight-year-old companion dubbed this one of her favorite parts of the whole movie along with her favorite character being Ian. Most importantly one must always remind themselves that these films are for the kids (and the kids at heart). Director Dan Scalon did a great job of setting up this young man(elf) who has a hole in his heart left by a father who passed away when he was just a baby. Ian prods his older brother for the few memories that Barley retains of their father. Blaming his lack of friends and timidity on not having a father figure it is hard to not feel something for our main character.
Upon returning home from another disastrous day at school Mom presents the boys with a gift from their father that was to be given to the boys on when Ian turns 16. It is a wizard staff, a powerful phoenix stone, and a spell to bring their father back for 24 hours so he can see how his boys have grown up. Since Barley spends his time trying to save old historical magical sites from days of yore and playing a role-playing game akin to Dungeons and Dragons called Quest of Yore he is the obvious choice to wield the staff's magic. But the spell just won't work. But when Ian picks up the staff, this is the stuff of magic. Unfortunately the timid and cowering Ian hasn't the strength for the staff's power and the Phoenix Stone disintegrates before the spell can be worked properly. All they have conjured up is their father's legs from the waist down. They sneak out of the house and jump aboard Barley's purple, beat up van with a fantastic unicorn painted on the side to head out on a quest to find another Phoenix Stone so they may complete the spell and see their father before the 24 hours are up. This set-up may be painfully obvious for the adults but the two brothers must work together now with Barley's knowledge of the arcane to help Ian find the power in the magic staff. The boys are kind enough though to leave their Mom a note and give us a sort of clunky B-story.
Even before attending this film the jokes about a character that is just pants have been bandied about. He is prevalent in the previews so this is of no surprise. Ian does attach a hoodie with sunglasses to his legs so as not to draw attention to him at least creating a full-bodied character. As troublesome as this scenario is it quickly becomes apparent that the film is about the quest. The high paced chase scenes and action are what creates the most fun and best comedy. When they get pulled over by two policewomen (The cyclops cop is Disney/Pixar's first (out) lesbian character). The father jumps out of the van, flails about and causes the policewomen to think he has been drinking. This is the second moment that the theatre full of kids erupted in laughter and brings to focus that this troublesome character is primarily used for comic relief.
The thrust of this film is not comedy at all but high energy, excitement and adventure. Not to sound old-fashioned but it dwells in the realm of what would be called a "boys" story. It is lucky that we live in a new age and our modern girls seem to be completely on board with this film. It is very refreshing seeing two protagonists that are young men coming to terms with loss and making their way in the world.
We were treated to a screening at the Regal LA Live in downtown Los Angeles using the 4DX effect. This system is in select theatres across the U.S.A. and for our park fans it is not unlike the technology at Disney Parks of "it's tough to be a bug" currently running at Animal Kingdom in Florida. The seats though have quite a lot more up and down movement and can really get rocking. There is movement in the back of the seats that feels like punching when the characters get into a fight and there are air effects and even some water effects. There is a button where you may shut off the water effects but for this picture they were quite light. There is also wind and smoke effects. If this sounds like something you would be interested in, the syncing to the Guinevere the van's high-speed chases were very effective and quite fun. The crowd really seemed to be enjoying themselves and with the air blowing and special effects it was rather effective.
The other scene that was memorable to my eight year old friend was the scene involving Ian and Barley's first stop on their quest at The Manticore's tavern. The Manticore has sold out and turned her tavern into a sort of Chuck E. Cheese place suitable for children. As the boys prod her to help in their quest of finding another Phoenix Stone, three listless girls complain about a broken karaoke machine while a costumed critter strangely reminiscent of a certain theme park that is a cute and adorable version of The Manticore performs meet and greets and just generally clowns around. Kids will really identify with this world and it truly makes for the most fun scene in the entire picture, and much more successful showing us a world that has given up on magic than the opening sequence. When the Mom teams up with The Manticore to help in saving her boys it is a wonderful caring sub-plot and the relationship with these two characters is fun but it just seems to make the pace of the quest lag. We could have seen an entirely different movie from these two characters perspective. As charming as these characters are it seems to keep the pacing of the quest fractured.
Pixar films are known for their amazing pacing and concise story telling. It feels like this movie just got a little too big for the time on screen. That said, the final moments hold some of the best plot twists and even though we know the resolve of this film from the onset there are some truly unique turns and twists at the end. We would recommend this film for kids that are age eight and up, just like my companion. That is about the age where stories about teenagers seem to spark them and Princess Sofia become the stuff of "little kids". This truly seems to be the target audience for this film. Take your Pixar tear-jerking expectations away, set yourself up for a fun night at the cinema and you will have a good time and even get choked up. Onward!