Onward is a puzzling title for Pixar’s latest animated feature, directed by Dan Scanlon who also was a writer with Jason Headley and Keith Bunin. Their collaboration is based on Scanlon’s own growing up years with an older brother who shared his yearning to connect with their deceased father.
Believe it or not, that is the premise of this animated movie; two brothers trying to connect with their deceased father. Now, you may not think that sounds too out of the ordinary, but please stay with me as I explain.
Onward begins with two brothers on the day the younger one turns 16. Ian, voiced by Tom Holland, wakes up on his birthday with great expectations but without the wherewithal to meet any of his latest challenges. He is too shy and backward to invite friends to his birthday party. He is nervous, lacks adventure, and faces the terror of passing his driving test. Meanwhile, older brother Barley (voiced by Chris Pratt) tries to help him out, even though he himself is a low achieving, overgrown teenager who most likely saw his glory days in high school. As Ian laments his longing to know his adventurous father and emulate him, their mother Laurel (Julia Louie Dreyfus) presents the brothers with a gift that was to be given to them when they were both over 16. It is a magic wand with a magic stone.
Wait a minute. Magic? Yes. Did I mention that Ian and his family are elves, and they live in a world made up of magical creatures that have given up magic because it became unreliable and tough to learn? The world they know is now relying, like the rest of us, on modern technology and have all but forgotten their magic heritage. Once magical and flying, unicorns now root through trash cans like foraging raccoons. Whimsical creatures have given up their powers to ride in motorcycle gangs, work at corporate jobs, and run Chuck E. Cheese style restaurants.
So, the deceased father leaves them the wand, the stone, and a magic spell. Here’s where the rather morbid part of the movie comes in: the spell involves bringing the father back to life for one day. Sound unsettling? Those of us who have lost loved ones are immediately struck by the sadness and uneasy feelings that would accompany such a prospect. After the spell misfires, the boys are left with just the legs of their deceased father, who follows them around on a leash while they strive to find another stone (the first one was destroyed). This is meant to bring levity and fun to the plot, but it just adds to the bizarre. The audience moves along with the brothers as they face not so exciting or adventurous peril. The rather predictable ending is not satisfying or even poignant, and small children leaving the theater were upset and wide-eyed. I really don’t know what the writers were thinking here. A few short minutes talking to your deceased father? My goodness.
The ensemble cast includes Octavia Spencer as a once powerful flying lioness who now runs a restaurant, a police officer centaur voiced by Mel Rodriguez, and a tough cyclops police woman played by Lena Waithe. Little is given to these gifted performers, and we see few of the comic skills that they and Dreyfus are capable of. The work of Holland and Pratt is good, but it can’t save this weird movie.
The writer’s had some good ideas. They tried. The movie ends up being a confusing mess of cheap jokes, good intentions, and a heart aching premise.
I’m not sure most folks will really get it. But, it’s a cartoon and will most likely get some audiences. Good luck explaining it to your children.
My grade for this movie is D. I honestly expected a lot more from Pixar.
Onward opens Friday, March 6 and is rated PG. Running time is 103 minutes.