Saturday, February 22, 2020

With Onward, PIXAR Delivers A Fantasy Film With Feels

PIXAR Animation Studios has already done movies tackling superheroes, robots, dinosaurs and monsters, among other topics. It was inevitable they'd do a fantasy movie and after first exploring the genre with the 2012 feature Brave, they've returned to the fantasy realm with Onward, which takes more of its fantasy cues from Gary Gygax than, say, Beauty and the Beast. Such cues takes place in a modern-day world inhabited by your usual fantasy creature staples liek Orc's, Elves and Centaurs. If that general premise and the advertising campaign for this Dan Scanlon directorial effort has you anticipating Bright Redux, fear not. Onward may hew closely to storytelling staples of traditional PIXAR fare but it's still got some poignant aces up its sleeve.

The two lead characters of Onward are Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) and Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt), a pair of elf brothers who lost their father so long ago that Ian has no memories of him. On Ian's sixteenth-birthday, he and Barley are given a gift by their mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). that hails from directly from their dad. That gift turns out to be a magic staff, one that's powerful enough to perform a spell that could bring Ian and Barley's deceased Dad back from the dead for one twenty-four-hour period. Of course, the spell doesn't go as planned and eventually only the bottom half of Dad comes back to life, in addition to the gem needed to perform this spell being destroyed.

Now Ian, Barley and their dead dad's legs are on a quest to retrieve a new gem that can help them pull this spell off before the twenty-four timer runs out. It's another PIXAR Road Trip Movie centered on a mismatched duo and that's one of a number of aspects of the production (which include the derivative characters designs of the two leads) that heavily evokes prior PIXAR titles. It'd be a lot easier to exclusively complain about Onward returning to familiar elements of prior PIXAR movies if it didn't end up executing its central storyline in a predominately satisfying fashion. However, if there is a bone to pick with the screenplay (penned by Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley and Keith Brunin) of Onward, it's that gags or background details related to how a modern-day fantasy world would operate aren't all that novel.

Granted, such an element doesn't end up being as critical of a component of Onward as promotional materials like its teaser trailer would suggest but background gags like a "HALT" sign instead of a "STOP" sign merely echo Far Far Away in the Shrek movies rather than establish the world of Onward as its own unique thing. While the gags related to modern fantasy could certainly stand some polishing, thankfully, the majority of Onward thrives on a more intimate style of storytelling that doesn't just rely on the sight of elves using cell phones. There's a lot more substantive storytelling going on here and the presence of such storytelling tends to sneak up on you, what seems like a routine adventure tale gradually shifts its perspective toward something more intimate.

Onward achieves this storytelling shift by showing admirable restraint when it comes to the fantastical set pieces. Such sequences tend to rely more on characterization rather than derivative spectacle. For instance, we get a mid-movie car chase scene that has all the intense editing of Baby Driver but isn't fixated on cars chasing each other across multiple blocks. Instead, it's all fixated on inexperienced driver Ian being forced to confront his fears related to driving while switching lanes on the freeway. That isn't exactly the first thing one thinks of when you imagine a fantasy adventure movie but that's the novel part of Onward. It's a story that presents itself as a grandiose quest but then proceeds to fixate its most important narrative points on small-scale interactions between the two leads. The highest compliment I can pay here is that you could take the central drama between Ian & Barley related to their familial woes, have it be told by humans and it would still be compelling.

There's plenty of fun to be had with the fantasy aspects of Onward's world but it also realizes that you won't care about that stuff unless you get these characters nailed down. In that department, Onward thoroughly succeeds, especially in terms of capturing the complex ups-and-downs between Ian & Barley that'll resonate as all too realistically messy for anyone who, like me, has grown up with siblings. Speaking of the fantasy stuff in Onward, Scanlon and company create plenty of fun set pieces that involve classic fantasy elements (caverns full of booby traps, bottomless pits, pixies, etc.) that generate excitement as successful as they play into the internal conflicts of the features protagonists. These exciting sequences bring out the best in the PIXAR animators as they render traditional fantastical locales with a sweeping sense of scope. On the opposite side of the equation, when it comes time for the more intimate sequences, Onward's animation is rife with the kind of small touches that inevitably tug at your heartstrings in an organic rather than forced manner.

Similarly helping to make Onward so moving is the voice work, which is a welcome surprise given how, on paper, its two lead actors should be the definition of animated movie stunt casting. Thankfully, Tom Holland and Chris Pratt are both able to surpass their celebrity personas and just become their characters. Holland, for his part, is able to make sure neurotic teen Ian is more than just a Peter Parker pastiche while Pratt genuinely impressed me in how his voicework kept unearthing new layers to a seemingly surface-level tabletop game obsessed college student. Pratt's best live-action performances tend to come about when he's playing people who think they're perfect heroes but are actually emotionally troubled doofuses. Given that, perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that Barley, a role very much in Pratt's best wheelhouse mold, is a part Peter Quill manages to knock out of the park, especially in some of Barley's most quiet poignant moments.

Also around in the voice-cast are Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer and Mel Rodriguez, who all end up supplying enjoyable supporting turns. Meanwhile, the score by Mychael Danna and Jeff Danna nicely dances back-and-forth between traditional fantasy adventure music and a more intimate musical approach, both modes that the duo end up delivering solid results in. This composing duo's work in balancing opposing tonal elements nicely encompasses how well Onward as a whole feature is able to be both an entertaining fantasy adventure and a touching story about the family members that shape us. That means, if you're like me, you can expect to shed some tears in Onward, I know some stretches of the final half-hour certainly got me all teary-eyed. Yes, that makes this newest PIXAR movie to cap things off an extended sequence guaranteed to get the waterworks. Once again, it'd be easier to gripe about the formulaic nature of this aspect of Onward if the movie didn't manage to execute its poignant climax so well. Sometimes, the familiar can be just fine if you execute it with enough success and smarts as Onward.

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