March 4, 2020

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Greater self-confidence might just be the last thing audiences want to see male characters try to achieve in 2020, but in the case of Onward, it could prove the right direction for male-centric storytelling.


Hagan Osborne
Year: 2020
Rating: PG
Director: Dan Scanlon

Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia-Louis Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Lena Waithe, Ali Wong

Distributor: Disney
Released: April 3, 2020
Running Time: 102 minutes
Worth: $15.00

FilmInk rates movies out of $20 — the score indicates the amount we believe a ticket to the movie to be worth

Greater self-confidence might just be the last thing audiences want to see male characters try to achieve in 2020, but in the case of Onward, it could prove the right direction for male-centric storytelling.

Accompanied by an offbeat [Blank], unlikely hero [Blank] and sidekick [Blank] go on a life-changing adventure to save [Blank] from [Blank].

Insert the plot details of most Disney-Pixar films into the above, and you will find yourself with a tried, tested and successful formula for family-friendly animated storytelling.

While these narrative constructs, if not constrictions, bear weight on Disney-Pixar’s latest fantasy-road trip-comedy Onward, there is enough originality in director/co-writer Dan Scanlon’s (Monsters University) ode to siblinghood to differentiate it from the monotony of other Pixar entries.

Set in a fantasy world where technology has rendered magic obsolete, the gift of a wizard staff with an array of magical properties finds blue-skinned teenage elf brothers Ian (Spiderman himself Tom Holland) and Barley (Starlord himself Chris Pratt) unsuccessfully attempt to fully resurrect their deceased father Wilden (Kyle Bornheimer) back from the dead for a twenty-four-hour period.

Managing to reanimate Wilden from the waist down, the polar-opposite bros set forth on a quest to complete the spell and enjoy what remaining time they can with their purple sock donning dad. Along their zany, soul-stirring journey, the trio encounter ferocious beasts who are cognizant of personal injury lawsuits, hot-headed biker sprites, and a slew of other-worldly figures that resemble Monsters Inc. background characters.

Lost upon Ian and Barley’s world is the spellbinding nature of magic; the sweeping green plains and pristine waterways that once sparkled underneath the glow of the sun, now replaced with congested motorways and inner-city high-rise apartments. Even the noble unicorns that once glided gracefully through the air, now bear a greater resemblance to a feral dog than a majestic beast. This theme of obsoletion, the longing for a time unspoilt by change, is a sentiment carried throughout Onward to symbolise the fleeting passing of adolescence, magical beings (or humans) losing their connection to nature, and the manner whereby affection for the past prevents folks (or elves) from appreciating the present.

True to form, Disney-Pixar has nailed it in the animation department, with Onward filled with elegant visuals and stunning landscapes. A sanitised, never-overdone heavy-metal score appears prevalently throughout the film. Its refreshing inclusion, a nod (or headbang) to Barley’s all-consuming rock’n’roll demeanour, imbues the film with a well-developed sense of personality.

The turbulence of siblinghood, particularly brothers who have experienced the loss of a parent, is equal parts touching as it is familiar. This theme of parental loss, almost a staple in every Disney-Pixar (and Marvel) film, is turned on its head by the film’s connection to fantasy and brotherhood. The journey taken by both brothers to reconnect, or be introduced in Ian’s case, to their father is affably intentioned. However, it becomes diluted by a screenplay which combines heart-rendering moments of affection with clunky, conveniently placed plot elements; delivered as throwaway lines, so deliberately placed, that boomerang later into the film. The grand effect feels less akin to the high standard of Pixar writing and more in-tune with notes made during the editing process.

With the exception of a vertigo-inducing “bridge” walk and a spectacle laden third act – a mandatory of any contemporary Disney flick – unfortunately, the action throughout Onward lacks a sense of coherence. Much of the adventure feels forced rather than organically serving character progression, particularly from Ian who learns to find his voice as a result of these under-developed escapades. Ian’s relationship to Barley, whom he considers to be an embarrassing screw-up lost in his own world of preservation, fantasy, and music, becomes tested throughout Onward as they move from obstacle to obstacle. Holland and Pratt prove a pitch-perfect combination, with the duo capturing the sweet-and-salty nature of brotherhood in all its tumultuous splendour.

The studio that made audiences everywhere care about a curious cockroach may have bitten off more than they can chew trying to make a pair of legs be loveable. Unable to hear, speak, or see, Wilden’s legs can only communicate by the occasional dance and caress of a foot. The sheer amount of footsies in Onward verges on Tarantino-esque, with the grand effect being unable to fully crack the Disney-Pixar code of making audiences feel emotionally invested in obscure characters.

Not to leave the women of Onward out of the adventure, the teaming of Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), Ian and Barley’s fearless yet benevolent mum, and Corey (Octavia Spencer), a fire breathing beast longing to relive her days of adventure, are the dynamite pairing we never knew we needed.

And then, there is Lena Waithe playing Disney’s first openly LGBTQ+ character; a cyclops police-officer named Spector who makes a throwaway comment about having a girlfriend. Only in a fantasy world could Disney proudly exclaim that’s their first openly LGBTQ+ character, which despite Spector’s inclusion in Onward still finds Disney guilty of ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ portrayals of queer characters. The character’s acknowledgement of her sexuality, told in passing, feels more like an empty proclamation of diversity by Disney – saying but never showing – than it does respectful representation.

Greater self-confidence might just be the last thing audiences want to see male characters try to achieve in 2020, but in the case of Onward, it could prove the right direction for male-centric storytelling.


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