By Ed Sum
(The Vintage Tempest)
Fans of TSR’s Dungeons and Dragons will certainly get a kick out of Disney*PIXAR’S Onward. Not only are all the references straight out of the monster manual, I acknowledge the acquisition from Wizards of the Coast–but they are not the true creators of this role playing game system. After saving this property from TSR’s failing infrastructure, they simply fixed it up. That being said, the world building and revolution that creators Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley and Keith Bunin crafted up is one I’d love to revisit!
Once upon a time, in a world far, far away was a world of magic. Sadly, it disappeared in favour of technological progress. Apparently it took place faster than anyone can realize–perhaps the only failing of this film–and pretty soon fairies, dwarves, elves, centaurs and many more had to embrace change. If they don’t stay progressive, any species I have not mentioned will be left behind. Onward is hardly subtle in this theme of forgetting the fast, and it establishes how this realm has become much like human society, dependent on technology to get by.
This film focuses on two brothers–an older ne’er-do-well and a younger social outcast. On his 16th birthday, Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland) gets a present from his father who passed away. He never knew him because he was an infant. However, older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt) does. The magical staff he receives comes with an instruction in how to bring pops back to life for a day. Because of Ian’s insecurities, only half of him materializes and in order to complete the magik, they have to find another phoenix stone.
This soon sends them on a road trip. As with any story using this formula, it’s always used to help the protagonists discover more about themselves. I’ve seen enough films in this sub-genre to know where this film was going. In what this film injects is a journey of wonder. We see what this world has forsaken within a Wild West style narrative, music included! Ian is venturing into new territory as he becomes a man. Barley has to face an eventual skeleton in the closet.
Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is their mother and straight up overprotective of her boys. She’s moved on and never tries to force her new boyfriend to spend time with the lads. They have to make their own peace, and it’s amusing to see Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez) try to play bad cop–or is it a good cop? This film doesn’t take the time to explore this aspect.
As the clues point to a classic scenario of adventuring into a forgotten dungeon and seeing where it’ll take the lads, the challenges they encounter all nicely define what this movie is about. It’s about staying positive. Onwards and upwards ho is the mantra!
All the CGI window dressing is marvelous to look at and I hope one day, Wizards will see fit to offer an animated take of Temple of Elemental Evil. PIXAR’s art department must be fans of the game to realize all the fun detail and insert in-jokes that only long time players will recognize.
As far as the supporting cast is concerned, I find the roles too familiar. The half-man thing the brothers carry is borrowed from Weekend at Bernie’s. Mom is like Sadness from Inside Out and the pawn shop keeper is kind of like Edna from The Incredibles. The only standout is Corey the Manticore (Octavia Spencer) who isn’t following a template, and this character deserves an animated short when the home video gets released. With no surprise, John Ratzenberger has an obligatory role.
As much as I enjoyed this film, I feel more concerned with typecasting. Holland is fantastic at playing social misfits. His last voice-over was in Spies in Disguise; the character type was no different. Both he and Pratt play off each other very well, especially when considering they worked in the past with the Marvel Cinematic Universe films. Hopefully the next live-action movie, Cherry, will change all that and fans of Holland’s work can see him as a serious actor.
4 Stars out of 5