Onward and Upward in Even the Strangest of Times
It almost goes without saying that Pixar has set some remarkably high standards in the realm of computer generated feature film animation; so much so that only they themselves are capable of trumping their earlier efforts. As such, what would be triumphant successes from other studios (Brave, Cars 3) are often viewed as failures for Pixar critically and publicly. In a way, it’s a good problem to have. After all, it was by continually raising the bar with every outing that they found themselves in this position of implied excellence. And, though it’s true the type of worldwide excitement films like the Toy Stories and Monsters Inc. generated are going to be difficult to equal these days, there’s little doubt that Pixar’s mastery of the nuance of storytelling continues to separate them from the ever-increasing hoards of competition.
Onward is unique and not only for the material itself but for its distribution model on account of the COVID-19 pandemic that overtook the globe during what was to be the film’s theatrical run. It was released theatrically on March 6th 2020 and nearly immediately recalled on account of worldwide mandatory theater closings. By March 20th it was available to buy via most major digital platforms, can now be streamed on popular services like Disney’s own Disney Plus and is slated to get a DVD/ blu release soon. As a result of this interruption to the usual cycle, it’s difficult to establish firm numbers. We do know the film was built on a budget of roughly $200-million and even though its theatrical run was tragically brief, it managed to recoup $104-million worldwide at the box office before the proverbial plug was pulled. Given the popularity of streaming and digital film purchases during the pandemic and its quarantining, it’s a very safe bet to say that Disney will manage to turn a decent profit regardless of the interruption, albeit not quite the type of numbers we’re used to seeing with big box office Pixar.
The film presents us with the unique concept of a world where what we consider fantasy here is their reality. In fact it centers on a pair of elven brothers who lost their father and attempt to learn magic to bring him back to life for a day. It’s a world of elves and sprites and dragons and maticores, ogres and cyclops. So just digital Lord of the Rings then? Nope. This is modern day life here – iPhones and convenience stores, beat up vans and trying to be popular with one’s teenage friends in high school. In short it is to Game of Thrones what Zootopia is to National Geographic.
We primarily follow young elf Ian (Tom Holland) who, despite having lost his father to illness before he was born, is dealing with all the trials and tribulations of a nerdy teen life. When his mother reveals that their father had left them a surprise to be given upon Ian’s 16th birthday, he and D&D aficionado older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) end up setting off on a magnificent quest the likes of which typically reside only in 1980s Spielberg films.
Just a little side-note here but if they reside in a world where fantasy is reality- wouldn’t it have worked better if Barley’s D&D game was our own reality? Maybe rolling dice and drawing cards with our historical figures on them as sort of trippy fantasy to them? Maybe the layering would have been all too much for the kids. In any event – the boys’ first foray in “real” magic only half works and they are left with little more than their father’s torso apparition and with the duration of the spell lasting only a single day, they are left with little choice but to set forth into the world (dad’s lower half and all) on a perilous journey in the hopes of summoning the rest of him.
Quests aren’t too uncommon in cinema but what makes this one so endearing is the interplay between the brothers. Plucking a pair of Disney’s own Marvel Cinematic Universe heavy hitters to fulfill the lead roles was a wise move indeed. Tom Holland brings an innocence and nerdiness to Ian that could only be countered by Chris Pratt’s over-zealousness as bigger brother Barley. Factor in a wonderful performance by Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the boys’ mother and you have all the makings of a memorable cast.
The 103-minute film’s pacing is brisk and never feels slighted or bloated at any point. Older viewers will find themselves chuckling at the cleverness the hybrid setting of reality and fantasy crams into every frame while the younger viewers will laugh at the Weekend At Bernie’s style slapstick that abounds with the father’s legs on a dog – er I mean dragon leash.
Remarkably, the film doesn’t reward its viewer with the standard happy ending formula, at least not entirely. Though upon further contemplation, it does deliver the right one and actually manages to strike a surprisingly deep emotional chord in the process.
All in all, and in continuing the tradition last witnessed in 2017’s Coco, Pixar manages to again deliver everything that makes for a wonderful computer generated animated feature – engaging characters, authentic interactions, beautiful moments and enough humor packed in along the way to keep everyone involved giggling – no small feat in itself in these dark global times.
Because of the pandemic-induced interruption of Onward’s theatrical run, we will never know how it stacks up against Pixar’s other classics but its early and abundant availability means such things really don’t matter in the first place. This humorous quest for a top half manages, ironically, to do what the world could use now more than ever – brings families together.