A Little Magic
The internet has given us a great deal. From my laptop or phone, I have access to several lifetimes’ worth of information and culture. I can order a pizza, have it personalized precisely to my specifications, and it will be delivered to my overpriced hovel—all without having to speak to a human being. It’s a kind of magic.
The internet has also taken away a great deal. It can feel like decency is in short supply sometimes, and it can also feel like blizzards of information hide the fact that much of the information can’t be trusted. One of the worst casualties of the information age is the untimely demise of nuance.
Go online and things tend to be either the pinnacle of human perfection or a literal bucket of sewage. That’s particularly the case when it comes to movies. I have seen people post that Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is the worst studio blockbuster in the history of film, and I have also seen posts about the very same movie opining that it operates at such a high level of quality that it cannot be understood by average folk.*
I’m just as guilty of being bitten by the hyperbole bug as anybody else. The fact remains that most movies fall somewhere in the “okay” category. Usually they’re pretty good, not so hot, fairly average, or “meh,” in the parlance of our times. Even the mighty Pixar, the juggernaut of family-friendly entertainment, has made a chunk of films that are perfectly fine, and friends, I submit to you that their latest film, Onward, is also perfectly fine.
Once upon a time, there was a land filled with magic. There were verdant rolling hills. There were unicorns frolicking upon the rolling hills. The air was lousy with pixies zipping hither and yon. However, much like yoga, magic was fiendishly difficult to perform properly, and much like yoga, most people simply gave it up after a while.
Time passed, and that land ended up looking an awful lot like ours. There are still creatures of myth like centaurs, yet now they just drive around everywhere.** Baby dragons have become obnoxiously affectionate household pets. The suburbs are made of whimsical houses with mushroom-shaped rooftops. That’s where Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) lives, and on his sixteenth birthday, he dreams of just a little bit of magic.
It’s not that Ian’s life is bad, per se, it’s just missing something. His mother Laura (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) loves him and works hard to give him a good life. His brother Barley (Chris Pratt) looks after him and means well, yet he’s the tiniest bit an underachiever, more focused on playing his Dungeons and Dragons-esque roleplaying game*** and fixing up a banged-up van that would be right at home in 1973.
There’s a hole in Ian’s life, one caused by the passing of his father due to illness. He never knew his old man, but he yearns to learn something about him. He’ll get his chance due to a secret revealed by his mother. You see, his father left a staff, a rare Phoenix Gem, and instructions for casting a spell to bring his father back. The spell goes wrong and only the lower half is resurrected. Now, Ian and Barley must undertake a quest to bring back the rest of their father, and they just have 24 hours to do it.
When most of us think of Pixar, we think of the art-deco style of The Incredibles or the potent and witty nostalgia of Toy Story. Pixar has developed a reputation for making some honest-to-goodness classics, and it’s perhaps a little unfair when they simply deliver a perfectly nice time at the movies. I liked Onward. I chuckled a bit at the onslaught of fantasy-inspired gags and felt a twinge of sentimentality as the movie desperately yanked on my heartstrings.
Director Dan Scanlon has been a part of Pixar for over a decade, and he’s absorbed the lessons of the studio to an extent. He’s made a film with zippy pacing and an airy touch, the kind of movie that young kids will enjoy due to goofy visuals, older kids will enjoy due to the amusing idea of Star-Lord and Spider-Man from the MCU ragging on each other as brothers, and adults will enjoy due to some well-placed moments of emotion. Scanlon’s film is a well-animated crowd-pleaser, and he really, really wants the crowd to be pleased.
Scanlon also has something to say. Along with co-screenwriters Jason Headley and Keith Bunin, Scanlon intended for his script to be more than a comedic and episodic fetch quest — which it definitely is. He wants to focus on how we deal with the loss of a parent and the accompanying unresolved issues. Their script should rip my heart out, since those themes are definitely something I can relate to. I wonder if the problem is with the movie or me, since I didn’t feel much beyond a vague, “I miss my dad,” which was followed quickly by, “I need to get more dog food tomorrow.” At their best, Pixar’s films are legitimately profound. Ratatouille shows us how food is tied up with emotion, while Inside Out deals with the chaotic business of emotions themselves. They achieve that profundity by knowing exactly when to get silly, when to get serious, and when to marry the two to create something more. This screenplay never reaches those heights, and we can feel the familiar Pixar formula a little too acutely. Its heart is in the right place, though, and I’ll always give a screenplay credit for that.
For the most part, the cast is firmly in their comfort zones. Chris Pratt is a sweet and swaggering blowhard who’s about 60 percent less cool than he thinks he is, while Tom Holland is a young man trying to figure out who he is. That’s all fine. What’s less fine is casting a comedic force like Julia Louis-Dreyfus and giving her so precious little to do beyond being supportive. Octavia Spencer is entertaining as The Manticore, a…um…manticore. A once tough adventurer, she’s traded in the questing for managing a family-style restaurant, and it’s a life change she’s less than thrilled by.
Onward is a comfortably mid-tier work from Pixar. I think it’s destined to become an “Oh yeah, I remember that!” kind of movie. There’s a place for movies like that. If you want to take your kids to something that won’t be highly annoying, want to suggest as a safe option for a first date,**** or want a lazy Sunday post-hangover film that’s not too taxing, Onward will do the trick nicely.
*The internet also gives people the ability to express opinions that they would never have the courage to say out loud in public.
**One of my favorite throwaway gags in Onward is a split-second shot of a centaur playing Prance Prance Revolution.
***If nothing else, I hope this film helps to get more budding nerds into D&D.
****Contrast that with the first date my wife and I had, where we saw Bringing Out the Dead, a Martin Scorsese film about a suicidally depressed paramedic.