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At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Onward “2020”

MPAA Rating: PG/ Genre: Animated Fantasy/ Voices of: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Mel Rodriguez, Kyle Bornheimer, Lena Waithe, Ali Wong, Grey Griffin, Tracey Ullman, Wilmer Valderrama, John Ratzenberger/ Runtime: 103 minutes

I feel that it must be said that within the time span of the past 8 years, one of the most intriguing ingredients in the massive success that any animated film made by Disney has encountered would undoubtedly have to be the fact that they manage to build some truly incredible worlds that they then put on avid display for an amazed and intrigued audience. Indeed although you could say that what started audiences down this path was the showcasing of what the lives of various arcade characters was like courtesy of Wreck-It Ralph back in 2012, I do feel that other titles in the time since such as Zootopia and even Coco were also able to utilize a similar magic and creativity in how they chose to showcase their own extraordinary concepts of a world not quite unlike our own yet made up entirely of animals as well as a celebration of not only the afterlife, but the powers of both memory and family respectively. Indeed I feel that by tying together both these instantly iconic worlds with just as memorable characters and plots I feel that Disney has been able to create films that we can now call instantly classic with relative ease.

I bring this up because on the surface, Onward appears to have become simply the latest title in this modern tradition. This is because despite the film choosing to conquer the universal themes of both loss and family for its target audience, the story this film showcases is also incidentally set in a world that has clearly and lovingly found its inspiration in the best elements of classic fantasy albeit with a backstory that is completely different than our own. Suffice it to say then that at a rudimentary level this truly is an intriguing foundation to showcase and build a narrative off of, and given that this is uncharted territory and the studio can literally do whatever it wants in a genre that both celebrates and embraces limitless possibilities, I feel that the potential here was truly unmistakable. Thankfully it’s a potential the film manages to live up to and deliver almost a handful of aces to. This is because, even though Pixar may have been drinking from the nostalgia well quite a bit here lately, I definitely feel that Onward is the kind of film that the studio should choose to base the majority of its future slate off of. Indeed Onward really truly is a unique and emotional narrative that still succeeds in being a showcase of the usual Pixar trademarks of amazing world creation, an unashamed sense of sentimentality, an extremely insightful regard towards tone, and of course a conclusion that has been scientifically engineered to cause the waterworks to flow like a fountain from both adults and kids in equal measure. Yet despite being Pixar’s answer to an Amblin-era Steven Spielberg cinematic outing, I also feel that Onward wisely chooses to lean more on the humor rather than drama as well the work of a terrific voice cast in order to to get its message across and thus make for a unique and engaging film viewing experience all its own.

The plot is as follows: Onward introduces us to a reality very much like ours albeit populated with fantastical creatures. Just like ours however, depending on who you ask, this world was also a world that used to be filled to the brim with magic. Sadly however, that magic slowly, but surely dissipated for many reasons, but the key one being that magic, when compared to technology, was just simply nowhere near as easy or as efficient to utilize. Thus the inevitable came to pass and it wasn’t long before this world’s fantasy landscape were transformed into the stereotypical suburbia that we all “know and love” and as a result nearly all of what this world considers to be “the old ways” were nearly lost to memory. With this world set up and created for us then, we as audiences are then introduced to a family of elves known as the Lightfoots that is made up of brothers Ian and Barley and their widowed mother Laurel. At the time the movie starts, it is Ian’s 16th birthday, and while for most 16-year olds this would be a moment for festivities it isn’t so for young Ian. Instead, Ian is choosing to use this as a moment for heavy-hearted pondering due to the young elf finding himself deep in thought about his and Barley’s dad who sadly passed on before Ian was brought into the world.

As it turns out though, his mom understands this better than he thought possible, and quickly reveals that she has a special present for both him and his brother that she has been holding onto, due to making the promise to her late husband that she would not give it to their boys until they were both at least sixteen years old. The gift turns out to be a wizard staff as well as instructions on how to conduct a visitation spell that will actually enable Ian and Barley’s father to come back to the land of the living for 24 hours so not only can they actually spend time with him, but so that their father is able to find out just who his boys have grown up to become. Of course it should be said that when Barley and Ian attempt to use the spell things go a bit haywire and they are only able to really bring back their dad’s lower half of his body. Thus wisely seeing that they really only have 24 hours to get the rest of him back into the world of the living, Ian and Barley decide to embark on a semi-quasi-sorta epic quest to find a new gem in order to power the staff so not only can they finish the spell, but so they can get a few, however fleeting, precious moments with someone they have loved all their lives even if one had more time with him than the other…

Now I feel it must be said that the world that the filmmaking team has managed to create to set this wonderful story in is absolutely magical, for lack of a better word, and the world also populated with a diverse and eclectic population of various creatures from across the realm of fantasy. However I do have a little bit of a qualm when it comes to the design of this film. This qualm takes the form of the fact that when you set a movie in a fantasy world that has creatures and beings of all sizes populating it yet then ground it to some degree by making said world very similar to one that audiences will know and be familiar with it is my opinion then that the things that we utilize in our day-to-day lives would have to be adjusted for them to make sense due to the fantastical element involved.

Yet that is not the case as instead we as audiences during the course of this movie’s 103 minute runtime find ourselves treated to such gems as a centaur cop finding himself cursed with the difficulty of having to get himself out of a cop car clearly made for a person or a roving gang of sprites riding together on a single motorcycle that one human being would have no trouble fitting on instead of each getting their own bike to ride. I mean I get it: this is supposed to be like our world except it’s populated by fantasy creatures. However by making it just like our world in certain aspects too much, you really are taking away some of the magic that could and rightfully should exist in the first place and this is a problem that plagues the film throughout. Yet what makes this particular quandary even more baffling is this is not the first Pixar movie to really possess this kind of issue (I mean c’mon: you all had to wonder at some point why in the Cars movies there were sidewalks). Nevertheless it still makes me as a reviewer wonder just how no one on the team that made this movie ever stopped to think about this even once. I mean this isn’t a serious gripe that is absolutely detrimental to the quality of the film, but it is something to think about.

Ultimately though I feel that the main area where this movie does succeed wonderfully is that this film manages to do a brilliant job at showcasing wonderfully constructed characters who are absolutely heartfelt in their attempts to be righteous yet aren’t afraid to inquire about their faults in order to find their hidden courage that will help them commemorate those they love. Indeed even though the circumstances of the unique world they all live in is a little light in terms of amount, I definitely feel it doesn’t hurt as much as it could when the personalities involved are this fleshed-out and realized. This of course starts out with the 2 brothers at the heart of our story as we see that younger brother Ian is both insecure and also attempting to figure just out who he is and what he wants out of life in that awkward to a t way that most teenagers attempt to. Thus it should come as no surprise that the actor who successfully brought such delightful awkwardness to the MCU with his portrayal of Spider-Man is able to voice this character absolutely perfectly. Yet in addition to that, I also feel that Tom Holland also succeeds in finding the heart of the character so you not only find yourself rooting for Ian to really come into his own by film’s end, but you also find yourself remembering just how life was when you were that age as well. On the other side of the coin though is Barley and honestly I feel that Chris Pratt does a fantastic job at providing depth and a lot of warmth and humor to a character who easily could have just become what is known as the “aimless and somewhat of a screw-up older brother” cliché. Indeed Barley may be a quest-obsessed history-oriented doofus in a lot of ways, but Pratt manages to infuse him with a lovability and humanity so that you really understand not only why Barley is who he is, but that he does love his brother in his own way and I feel that, as evidenced by Infinity War, that Pratt and Holland have such great chemistry together that you can instantly buy into the idea that these 2 are brothers because they’ve already proven that they are bros in real-life.

Yet beyond these two brothers and their love for both their father and each other, I also feel that Onward does a remarkable job of giving humor, character, and just understanding to the supporting cast with particular regard to the 2 women that become the boys’ staunchest supporters and allies. A feat that takes the form of the boys’ loving and devoted mother Laurel (a wonderfully utilized Julia Louis-Dreyfus) finding herself having to team up with monster warrior-turned-restaurant manager The Manticore (an enjoyable Octavia Spencer) on an equally as epic voyage not only to do whatever they can to help keep the 2 boys safe, but also to keep up their morale and hope and to just help them complete the quest they have set out on. Indeed not only is this pair of women really given the opportunity to have their own arc, but it also feels like they are given the chance to be their own characters outside of the main narrative involving the 2 brothers as well. Indeed say what you will about the world these characters exist in not possibly being fully utilized as well as it could have been, but make no mistake: every character in this is wonderfully created, and the cast all do fantastic work no matter how big or small their role.

All in all it is the opinion of this reviewer that one of the most astonishing gifts that Disney/Pixar has almost always been able to utilize is just how well they manage to combine the emotional alongside the pure, the sweet, and the comical into various narratives that the whole family can then embrace and watch together. Along with that though, I also feel that the studio does a wonderful job at making the concepts of both loss and even death in quite a few of the movies in their diverse filmography approachable for as wide of a demographic as possible. Suffice it to say then that Onward is able to accomplish some magic all its own by being able to pull at those very same heartstrings. Indeed I hate to say it, but ladies and gentlemen we all know loss will be a part of all of our lives at some point, and that death is a natural part of the order of things. With that inevitability out of that way however, I do feel that a film like this one does a wonderful job of just giving us an opportunity to stop what we are doing, reflect on an inward level, and then let the feeling of hope wash over us and give us some strength to look toward what could be rather than what has already occurred. Indeed Onward may not be as big of a game-changer as a few of what has come before from Disney/Pixar, but by retaining even the slightest amount of that magic it still manages to give us hope that great as what has come before may be, what lies ahead may truly be just as great if not greater….On a scale of 1-5 I give Onward a solid 3.5 out of 5.