‘I’ ON CULTURE
When I write that the new movie Onward is not a top-of-the-line film from Pixar, it should not be taken as a major criticism. Their best are brilliant, usually among the best of any given year. This film is merely very good. It is enjoyable, makes some interesting points about the human condition and keeps the audience involved all the way to a very sentimental conclusion.
The world of the film is one filled with elves, fairies, unicorns, centaurs and others who were once magical. At the start of the film, it is revealed that once magic ruled, but that because it was so difficult to master, technology took over. It was easier to flip a light switch than to learn a magical spell to make light, particularly since not everyone could do it. So centaurs now drive cars, fairies ride motorcycles and unicorns go Dumpster diving for food.
In the middle of all of this in the quaint suburb of New Mushroomton, Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) turns 16. At that point, his mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) presents him and his slacker older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) with a gift from their father, who died before Ian was born. Even Barley has only a few memories of him. But the gift is a wizard’s staff, and Barley, whose life is centered around a Dungeons & Dragons type of “historical game playing,” shows his brother a book of spells. It turns out their father had been a wizard, and Ian inherited the talent. He tries to cast a spell that would bring his father back for a day, but it succeeds in only bringing back their father’s bottom half. Those legs, however, manage to garner a lot of laughs. The boys, particularly Ian, want the spell to totally work to be able to talk with their dad for the one day he would be alive. But finishing the task of bringing him back will not be simple.
They start a quest for a phoenix stone to power the rest of the spell and go through all the basics of a typical board game, beginning with going to haunts of a giant manticore — a ferocious fire-breathing combination of human, lion and scorpion that also has wings. The manticore (Octavia Spencer), however, has turned her mansion into a “theme restaurant,” and she now uses her flames to sauté food. She won’t help because she is worried about OSHA regulations. But the boys learn enough to continue their quest.
And, of course, they rise to the challenges in many charming ways, providing support for each other even while bickering, just as brother generally do. And mom winds up chasing them, enlisting the manticore on the way. They are easily as funny as the two boys.
There are many twists and turns that wind up changing some of the meaning of the film, adding another layer of feelings. And all of it is worth the wait.
There are a lot of zingers that adults will appreciate. Watching the rationale for using technology to avoid work is a valid critique. The manticore’s restaurant is a wonderful spoof of some of the Disney theme restaurants. Using a dummy on top of the father’s legs was a great salute to the classic buddy comedy Weekend At Bernie’s with a couple of really funny bits. And there are many “hat tips” to other films that adults will appreciate.
The voice actors are very good. Holland is great as the central character and general straight man Ian. And Pratt is very funny as the older brother. I particularly liked Louis-Dreyfus, who was pitch-perfect at the mother. Spencer found extraordinary humor in a wild character. There was also a wonderful scene between a group of police officers that was absolutely hysterical, as the boys pretended to be their mother’s centaur police officer boyfriend.
The world-building for the movie was not as extensive as we’ve seen in films like Wall-E and Zootopia. That is a weakness, but not a vital one. We see what director Dan Scanlon wants us to see, and we are focused very heavily on the two young men. Their relationship is one of the vital keys to the film. As a result, this was fun to watch. Very young children might not understand it all that much, but this is one that slightly older ones will enjoy, as well as the adults who accompany them.
This is a fun movie, and if you or the kids or grandkids like films like these, go see it.