'Onward': Film Review | Berlin 2020

Not a total misfire, but in terms of the Pixar canon, backward.
3/6/2020

Chris Pratt and Tom Holland voice elf siblings on a magical quest to spend one day with their late father in Pixar's fantasy adventure from 'Monsters University' director Dan Scanlon.

The biggest hurdle in the path of every Pixar film's success is Pixar's own outstanding history. Beginning with Toy Story in 1995, the animation studio set the bar high and has repeatedly raised it in the decades since with ingenious storytelling, imagination and wit, spinning emotionally rich tales often centered around themes of love, family and personal growth with insights that speak as much to adults as to kids.

Not every entry can be an instant classic like WALL-E, but the majority of Pixar's films are special for one reason or another. Which makes the generic bro humor and familiar Dungeons & Dragons role-play vibe of Onward a letdown. The title's vague echo of the captivating Up is unfortunate.

This fantasy adventure quest, about two teenage elf brothers racing against the clock to spend a day with their late father before a reanimation spell wears off will be perfectly agreeable entertainment for many children. But it lacks infectious magic. Any promise of originality fueled early on by the amusing sight of unicorns sniffing through suburban trash quickly dissipates as the siblings' journey gets under way, their progress marked by slapstick gags, predictable close shaves, encounters with characters that often feel like plot padding and standard life lessons writ large.

The movie is at its best in the concluding stretch, where the personal investment of director and co-writer Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) pays off with genuinely affecting moments that tap into feelings of loss as well as the balm of connection. The story was inspired by Scanlon's relationship with his older brother and their shared yearning for knowledge of their father, who died when the director was a small child.

Like many Pixar films, Onward is steeped in nostalgia, in this case for a time of wonder that's been misplaced as a world populated by elves, mermaids, orcs, cyclops, dragons, centaurs, trolls and sprites learned that magic was tough to master so started relying on modern technology instead. That mashup of everyday reality and fantasy allows production designer Noah Klocek to have fun with the toadstool suburbia of New Mushroomton and cities full of skyscrapers shaped like fairy-tale castles. But mostly, the look is disappointingly pedestrian.

Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) turns 16 as the story begins, but is too shy and awkward even to invite school classmates over for birthday cake. His gonzo older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) is spending his gap year either railing against the developers destroying the town's history or playing "Quests of Yore," an RPG that harks back to earlier times and magic now mostly forgotten. Their father Wilden (Kyle Bornheimer) died before Ian was born, so he clings to Barley's few memories of him as if they were his own.

While his mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is strong and supportive, Ian is convinced that growing up with a father would have made him the bold, confident man he dreams of becoming. A strategically timed gift Wilden left behind for the boys gives Ian the opportunity to test that belief, with a wizard's staff, a magic stone and a spell that will bring their father back for one day. But the spell only half works, conjuring Wilden just from the waist down. After the rare stone is accidentally destroyed, the brothers have 24 hours to find another and complete the magic before they lose their father again.

That might seem like a string of spoilers, but Disney chose to reveal the entire elaborate setup in the trailer, so blame them. The dynamic of the quest is summed up by Laurel's observation that one of her sons is scared of everything while the other is scared of nothing. That makes it easy to guess the kind of self-actualization that will mark introverted Ian's coming of age. The more poignant thread, however, stems from Ian's growing appreciation of the role his brother has played in his path to maturity.

Wilden wanders through most of the movie with a hastily improvised top half that turns dead dad into a mobile mannequin; he staggers around on a leash like the corpse in Weekend at Bernie's, generating klutzy comedy to diminishing returns. So even though the central theme of sons longing for the father cruelly taken from them is quite touching, it becomes secondary to the bonding experience of two brothers vastly dissimilar in nature finding common ground.

This is nicely played by the voice actors, with Pratt dropping his signature goofball irreverence to reveal the hurt when Barley learns that Ian thinks of him as a screw-up, and Holland's endearing earnestness acquiring depth once he realizes how much reckless Barley, despite his propensity for chaos, has given him.

The problem with the screenplay by Scanlon, Jason Headley and Keith Bunin is that nothing much that happens en route to these realizations is particularly funny or exciting. In terms of laughs, an unfair burden is placed on Barley, with his chunky physicality, peekaboo butt crack and his beat-up van, Guinevere, bedecked in groovy panel art. But he feels more like a cookie-cutter rehash of other Pratt or Jack Black characters than a fresh creation.

The underlying theme of rediscovering magic and enchantment in a commercialized, technology-driven world is addressed via the Manticore (Octavia Spencer), an ancient, fire-breathing creature who describes herself as "a winged lion scorpion lady" but has retired her warrior ways to run a theme restaurant. There's also a biker gang of punky sprites (led by Grey Griffin) who ride since they've forgotten how to fly; and Officer Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez), a centaur cop who loves Laurel but has struggled to win over her sons.

Given the hilarious gallery of supporting characters both noble and villainous that have enlivened past Pixar journeys (think of all those wondrous sea creatures in Finding Nemo, for instance), this is a pretty uninspired bunch, including cyclops and satyr patrol cops voiced by Lena Waithe and Ali Wong, respectively, and a reptilian pawn shop owner with the cackle of Tracey Ullman. Even if it's mildly interesting that Waithe's character mentions the parenting headaches of raising her girlfriend's kid, the nods to LGBTQ and racial inclusivity add nothing to the thin narrative broth. And the writing is just not clever enough to capitalize on the comedic gifts of actors like Dreyfus and Spencer.

D&D nerds might get a kick out of the dreaded appearance of the Gelatinous Cube, a block of ooze that engulfs everything in its path, but the dangers that surface throughout the brothers' quest seldom remain a threat long enough to create suspense — despite the hard work of Mychael and Jeff Danna's thundering orchestral score. The most impressive adversary is a fearsome creature spontaneously assembled out of the wreckage of a guardian curse in the story's climactic battle, though the simpler, rough-hewn menace of something like the Rock Monster in Galaxy Quest, conceived along similar lines, was a lot more fun.

Production company: Pixar Animation Studios
Distributor: Disney
Voice cast: Chris Pratt, Tom Holland, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Mel Rodriguez, Ali Wong, Lena Waithe, Grey Griffin, Tracey Ullman, Wilmer Valderrama, Kyle Bornheimer, John Ratzenberger
Director: Dan Scanlon
Screenwriters: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin
Producer: Kori Rae
Executive producer: Pete Docter
Directors of photography: Sharon Calahan, Adam Habib
Production designer: Noah Klocek
Music: Mychael Danna, Jeff Danna
Editor: Catherine Apple
Supervising technical director: Sanjay Bakshi
Effects supervisor: Vincent Serritella
Casting: Natalie Lyon, Kevin Reher
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Special Gala) 

Rated PG, 103 minutes