Movie Review – Onward
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
This is the 22nd feature film from Pixar Animation. This year marks 25 years since the release of its first feature Toy Story (1995). It’s Pixar’s silver anniversary as it were. To anyone who has seen most, if not all of Pixar’s films, one would probably notice a pattern or a formula as to how their films are put together in terms of story structure and themes, as well as character dynamics. I suppose it’s to be expected that a company has a pattern or formula as to how it operates. Pixar is as much of a brand as Marvel Studios, LucasFilm or even Disney itself. People love Pixar, Marvel or LucasFilm because they have formulas to which they adhere and from which they try not to waiver. It’s satisfying, but it breaks the illusion over how original it’s being.
That formula is rather clear. The template is basically that of Toy Story, which focuses on a pair or duo going on some kind of adventure or a veritable road trip. Often times, there are other characters involved, but mainly the focus is on the duo. Often times, the duo is related or is family members. Other times, the duo is a romantic pair. Mostly, it’s about friendship or family, divorced from romance or anything approaching physical love. What’s also part of the formula is the characters acting or reacting to the loss of a loved one, usually lost due to death. This part of the formula isn’t unique to Pixar. It’s appeared in many Disney films going all the way back to Bambi (1942). However, it’s been a recurrent theme in Pixar flicks, including Finding Nemo (2003) and Coco (2017), but the one film that popped in my mind was Up (2009).
Tom Holland (Spider-Man: Homecoming and The Impossible) voices Ian Lightfoot, a teenage elf who is celebrating his 16th birthday. Yes, Ian is an elf. Elves and other mythical creatures like unicorns and fairies exist in the world. Yet, they’re not treated as mythical. They’re treated as commonplace and totally normal. Ian lives in a city called New Mushroomton where all those normalized, mythical creatures live in mushroom-shaped houses. It seems like it’s Ian’s first day at school and he’s nervous about inviting people over for a birthday party.
He doesn’t seem to have any friends that he already knows and can automatically invite. He seems to have to ask a random group that is hanging out in front of school. This point makes it confusing to fully understand what Ian’s life has been like. One has to assume that he’s just a shy or timid boy. That shyness and timidity could be a result of the fact that Ian’s father died when Ian was very young and the trauma of that is perhaps resulting in him not being as social as say his brother.
Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World) voices Barley Lightfoot, the elder brother to Ian. He’s the total opposite in personality. He’s not shy at all. He’s loud and talkative. He’s very gregarious. He’s perhaps annoyingly so. His favorite thing is a game called “Quests of Yore.” It’s a role-playing game that’s comparable to Dungeons & Dragons. It’s a game that draws upon the history of this alternative Earth with its normalized, mythical creatures. For example, the game talks about the history of dragons or dragon-like creatures, but, for Barley, dragons are real and in fact kept as pets, much in the way that in The Flintstones, the characters kept dinosaurs as pets.
Going back to why Up popped in my mind, that film by Pete Docter was about a man who embarks on a journey in hopes of connecting to his lost loved one. An unlikely traveler joins him on that journey. Along the way, the man realizes that he has to let go of his lost loved one and focus on the people who are still alive like his unlikely travel companion. That’s essentially what we get with this film, directed and co-written by Dan Scanlon. At this point, the Pixar formula and this specific dynamic is noticeable. There’s a laziness to seeing it repeated. That being said, the people at Pixar are effective at executing that formula. The character development, the action and the pacing are always on point and appropriately balanced for the necessary, if not maximum amount of emotional impact.
Pixar again peppers great comedy throughout, one-liners and visual gags that work time and time again. A chase scene involving sprites or fairies on motorcycles was especially fun. The supporting characters here are also great with the majority of them being women like Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Veep and Seinfeld) who plays the mother to Ian and Barley, as well as Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures and The Shape of Water) who plays the Manticore. One misstep though is the waste of Lena Waithe (Master of None) who voices Specter, a cyclops police officer.
Specter is supposed to be a lesbian as Waithe is a lesbian in real-life. Yet, we only know that Specter is a gay woman due to one line of dialogue where Specter references her girlfriend. This is a misstep not simply because it’s there but because it doesn’t go far enough. There has been a slew of big-budget, Hollywood films that have only given lip-service to the LGBTQ community, meaning one-line of dialogue in brief scenes that if you blink, you’ll miss them. We’ve still not had lead characters or major supporting characters in big-budget films express queerness or same-sex attraction on screen in any meaningful or significant way yet. These major studios like Pixar are moving at a snail’s pace and not advancing the ball fast enough or well enough.
Rated PG for mild peril and some thematic material.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 42 mins.