Dir. Dan Scanlon. Starring Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus
There are no true standout moments in Onward, no really funny bits, no moments of great pathos, no witticism in a line or line reading that I’ll be able to point to in a year or so when I recall the movie. There are no particularly bad moments in Onward, nothing particularly cringey, no moments when I felt bored, no giant mistake in concept. This movie is fine. It’s not even fine in a dismissive way, or a “this could have been so much better” way, or a “that [one element] really keeps the whole thing hanging together” way. It’s fine in a focus-grouped kind of way, like there were a lot of hands who each got a grubby finger on the idea, and then more got a smudgy print on the edits. The movie is about two elves, which are humans roughly the color of Draags. Ian (Holland) and Barley (Pratt) get on the road so they can collect a doohickey which will allow them to see their dead dad for a finite period of time. Getting on the road means that the brothers, who are not much alike in anything but their social awkwardness, must confront obstacles here and there while also confronting the cracks in their relationship. I love a simple road movie. Some of the most profound movie-viewing experiences of my life have been with simple road movies: The Last Detail, Lost in America, The Straight Story. This is a simplistic road movie, as scrupulously plotted as a map, down to the part of the movie where it turns out that following their map would have led the brothers to the wrong place. One of the things that stands out about Onward is how often Ian and Barley get into life-threatening trouble over the course of about twenty-four hours. The restaurant where they try to find the Manticore (Octavia Spencer) all but burns down with them inside. Ian gets tossed into driving on the highway for the first time while he’s being pursued by a pixie motorcycle gang, and you know, I don’t rememeber if anyone’s wearing seat belts for this particular wild ride. Ian walks across a chasm using only his own magic to support him. Ian and Barley are chased by a gelatinous cube (their words, not mine), which dissolves anything it ingests; that this gelatinous cube takes the place of a boulder in a scene that’s mostly plagiarized from Raiders of the Lost Ark is its own indignity. Barley unleashes a curse which turns the local high school into a dragon out to destroy them. This is mayhem without danger, which is perfectly fine: this is a movie for children. All the mayhem, however, is mere distraction. If enough stuff happens, it means something happened in the movie, right? Who am I kidding. I’m just relieved that their father wasn’t revealed in a bizarre flashback to have gotten halfway to genocide decades ago and cursed the whole realm.
There are certainly flaws in the movie that one wishes might have been excised or managed in some way. Frankly, the entire B-plot, in which the boys’ mother, Laurel (Louis-Dreyfus) and Corey the manticore go on their own road trip to try to keep the boys from getting killed by the curse that will be released when the Phoenix Gem is taken could have been removed entirely and nothing would change. The only reason there’s a curse is to physically block Ian from meeting his father at the end and thus giving Barley an opening to say goodbye to the dad he barely remembers. We see the moment where Wilden and Barley reunite from Ian’s point of view, slightly buried under a great mound of rubble that probably used to be the high school gym or something, and mercifully we don’t hear the conversation. But it’s less interesting because Ian, who has already made the choice not to see his dad because his brother was essentially his dad, has the choice taken away from him by being trapped. Would he have reacted differently if he had the chance to give his Spielberg-lookin’ father a hug? Would he have stepped on Barley’s toes when Barley only has about thirty seconds to say what he needs to say to his father? Or would he have done the right thing and stayed out of sight of his own volition, rather than being kept from his dad by cinderblocks? There’s a potentially powerful moment, perhaps even a movie-saving moment, that Onward casts aside for the sake of having one last scene with action.
I think it’s also a daring choice to make the main character of this movie the least interesting main character in the history of Pixar movies. There are three things to know about Ian: he is socially awkward, he can do magic, and his dad is dead. The first only matters for the first ten minutes of the movie, since he doesn’t need to do much in the way of social interaction with people he doesn’t know while he’s on a trip with his brother and his dad’s legs. The second is useful as opposed to engaging. No one has made magic this boring or rigmarole since C.S. Lewis, and at least Lewis had the excuse of moralizing while he did it. (Not to make this a full-blooded tangent, but the naughty, insufficient boys of Narnia, like Edmund, Eustace, and Shasta, at least have character arcs worth sticking around for.) Ian says some nonsense that Barley has memorized, he holds his body in the right way, and poof, the staff glows and spells come out. They are usually imperfect the first time, but like they say on Glee, “Why would anyone need to practice?” The third I suppose you can make of what you will, but I think it’s worth noting that Ian has never, not even outside of memory, laid eyes on his father. The khakis that get thrown around Barley’s van over and over again are the closest he gets to figuring out his dad, which is sort of like trying to experience London without leaving Heathrow. There are plenty of absent or dead fathers in Pixar movies, even ones who the protagonists have never met. Linguini never knew that Gusteau was his father, but at least there’s some legal drama in that movie which results from it, to say nothing of how interesting it is that the great chef who proclaimed “Anyone can cook” has a son who would burn water. On the other end of the spectrum is Arlo, who knows that he is in a way responsible for Henry’s death, even if the principle that Henry died because of was worthless to his son in the end. But there’s no in-between for Ian. He cannot claim any responsibility for Wilden not being there, for Wilden’s illness was not of anyone’s doing. Nor is there some hidden mystery to uncover about his dad, some salacious story which will mean some drama outside the family will come to a head. Wilden simply isn’t there, and as much as it’s understandable that Ian would live in his shadow and love to meet the guy—heck, I read the Harry Potter books too—Ian’s longing to do so doesn’t ever come out as a trait, or a motivation. They’ve done a wonderful job on him; they designed him to to be the most blah kid in the world, and they succeeded wildly. Some blame also has to belong to Tom Holland, whose vocal performance is as flat and uninteresting as a third Spider-Man in ten years. In fairness, Chris Pratt ain’t giving him much to work off of, either. This Twitter search is a more potent review of Onward than anything I’ve said here.
With all that said…I like this movie. It’s inoffensive, and occasionally kind of pretty in that increasingly stagnant way that Pixar movies are pretty, and there are worse ways to fill an hour and forty-five minutes with movies that we usually dismiss as “fine.” You just watch this movie, and there’s no divine spark in it, not even the flint that might start it. By now it’s been four and a half years since Pixar released a good movie (an opinion I understand is heterodox, but the brand loyalty to Toy Story 4 is misguided and The Good Dinosaur is significantly more interesting than you remember). At the beginning of Onward, there’s a prologue about how technology replaced magic, and while magic is still attainable in New Mushroomton and its nearby cities, it has been almost entirely forgotten. One feels much the same way about the people mining magic in Emeryville, working for a company that seems as ignorant of the magic spells as Ian and as incapable of producing them as Barley.