You are here



No, not Onwards, backwards. Upwards, not forwards, and always
twirling twirling towards freedom

dir: Dan Scanlon


I’ll be the first to admit my own potential to devolve into repetitive hackery. In this instance, what I mean is, sure, there are probably plenty of times where I rely on stock standard phrases and repeat myself in reviews. In some instances, you could probably change the name of the movie being reviewed, and insert any random other movie title into the body of the review or the title, and it would be indistinguishable from another review. It’s perhaps the result of laziness, or of forgetfulness, but either way if a reader started reading an old review, and it started sounding like a lot of other reviews, you’d have good reason to be miffed, Dear Reader. You wouldn’t be getting value for money.

That whole paragraph was purest preamble. The thing I’m going to repeat here is the thing (admittedly lazy) I seem to be finding myself saying whenever a new Pixar flick comes out, which is “Do you remember when you used to care that a new Pixar flick was coming out?” Like, it used to be an event, of sorts. It was something to look forward to.

Of course you can just as easily say the same about the overabundance of Marvel movies, or Star Wars movies, or James Bond movies, or anything else that we’ve been programmed to see every couple of years as the next instalment of a production line that will never seemingly stop producing instalments.

That question is one I posed out loud to my family about half an hour into watching this, it wasn’t just something I whispered into a guinea pig’s ear hoping for answers. The two responses I got back were “Eh” and “It’s Disney, what do you expect?” Both responses are probably right. It’s unreasonable for me to expect something that isn’t sustainable.

The ratio of mediocre to great flicks to come out of the brains and computers at Pixar is ever growing. The exceptional flicks are still exceptional, but they are getting lonelier. The ranks of the shitty ones just keep expanding.

Onward is staggeringly mediocre. It’s, like, embarrassing stuff, actively painful stuff with little if anything to say about anything. It’s so probably amazing from a technical perspective, but it has the heart and soul of an insurance ad. It’s so seeped in banality, and the laziest forms of sentiment that it did not elicit even the tiniest amount of emotion from me, and I’m the sort of soft touch that tears up at insurance commercials.

Imagine going to all the trouble of imagining a world filled with elves, orcs, centaurs, manticores, all that same old fantasy bullshit, and rendering it all as the most banal version of the most middle class and consumerist aspects of the world Americans imagine all of us already live in. Suburban, comfortable, tasteful but unnoticeable décor, sinkingly familiar. Magic in this world drained away because people found it easier to use technology, and since comfort is king, why bother with spells and staffs and bullshit?

Why indeed. I thought, about halfway through, that maybe the flick was making the point that the crushing banality of our suburban lives extinguishes some metaphor for what “magic” really represents in our lives, but it never even goes that far. It’s perfectly fine with the crushing banality, and the purpose of the magic is to help our hero realise…

That it’s important to be himself? That it would be great if a parental figure told him he was proud of him? That it’s important to play catch with someone?

Is it fuck… This American obsession with playing catch is unfuckingbelievable to me. It comes up in so many movies. The quintessence of parenting, or feeling loved as a boy by your father is if you played, at least once, catch with yer dad. If you did not get that, then you are ruined, and soulless, and lacking in purpose or confidence until the day some older man plays catch with you. Then you can finally grow, and become A Man.

I will never not find it irritating to see that cliché in movies. It’s specific to American flicks, and portrayed as such a universally admirable or desirable occurrence that I find myself involuntarily making the face of the girlfriend looking at the boyfriend checking out a different woman in that three-part meme that is terribly overused but still oh so relevant.

It’s a look that screams “Really? You’re going to be just that dumb about it?”

You better believe it. If there’s a dumb American cliché, Onward will represent it without putting ANY spin on it whatsoever, okay?

Ian (Tom Holland) is a dorky elf, who is an elf only because people here have to be “something”, not because being an elf matters in this world. People are elves or cyclops, or anythings, but they’re all essentially white middle class Americans. Thus Ian is just the average whitebread teenager. Rest assured, America, no Pixar flick will ever make you uncomfortable about anything.

Ian misses the father he has never known, due to an unfortunate case of death. Ian isn’t assertive, can’t drive, can’t argue for himself, and doesn’t have friends. He does have a dumb lummox of an older brother, though, being Barley (Chris Pratt), who I’m pretty sure it’s implied he’s a stoner and a bit of a fuck up.

I mean, he’s a lot of a fuck up, but this film is screaming out for heroes, and there are none in sight. By a strange sequence of events that might sound more interesting that it actually plays out, a ‘gift’ left by the late father is given to Ian on his birthday, one by which he can potentially cast a spell and summon the father back from death for one day.

Sounds… interesting, maybe? I mean, we could possibly empathise with a character who never got to know one of his parents, wanting to do everything possible, if even to only spend a day with them? Makes some kind of emotional sense.

The problem is, that’s not what the flick really wants to say. Summoning the dad character, ghoulish as it sounds, is just a red herring, a maguffin designed to hide in plain sight what Ian hasn’t been able to see his whole life. That he is bad and should feel bad, and no amount of dad will change that.

To keep things Disneyish and super ‘light’, the resurrection goes awry, and what the two dumb and dumber brothers are left with are a seemingly sentient pair of legs. They end at the hips I think, and they don’t just lie dead on the ground, in a puddle. They have no eyes or brain or mouth, so they can’t communicate verbally, but they can tap out a message to reassure our moronic heroes that these ghost legs are their dad’s legs.

It’s… kinda embarrassing? Like, I actively cringed, and imagined the brainstorming session at Pixar headquarters in Emeryville, California, where some bright spark shouted “And when they cast the spell, they only get his legs!!!!” and everyone else shouted “Brian, you’re a genius!” And Brian teared up, thinking “Yes, finally I had an inspired idea.”

But then he has to get back to getting the coffees, because he’s just the intern, and he only really got this highly unpaid internship because his mom knew someone else who knew someone else who knew Steve Jobs’ pilates instructor, and he never really felt like he earned his position there, very lucky, very privileged of course, but he can’t sometimes stop feeling like a bit of an imposter and…

It’s such a terrible and uninspired idea, but it prompts the brothers into going on a Quest to see their dad (at least the rest of him, because a pair of legs in tan pants can’t play catch? But can play hacky sack like a champ, probably) before the day is out.

It’s, and I don’t use these words lightly, fairly uninspired stuff. They have to follow a path to go to a place to get a gem that does a thing, and when Ian wants to go the quickest way there, Barley advocates that they should go via the most ass-backwards way. Now, that doesn’t make sense to Ian, and it doesn’t make sense to anyone else either. We know that obviously that’s the path they’re going to have to end up taking, because there’s another hour to kill, and if they take the straightforward path, they meet their dad, things are resolved, and then we have to watch them make a sourdough loaf of bread or something, or clean the leaves out of the gutters until the run time runs out.

But the film wants to pretend, past a certain point, that Barley’s obtuseness is actually a virtue. Barley is a dumbass doofus for three-quarters of the film, but then the flick decides Barley is the real embodiment of Dadness that Ian craves.

Bleurgh. Ugh. Other malformed words that indicate being deeply unimpressed.

Standard contemporary animation. Uninspired, if not patently painful mundanity masquerading as the magical. A world so boring it can only be our own devoid of meaningful conflict or intellectual effort. A message so pedestrian it deserves to be run over by a drunken driver.

5 ways in which this is a pointless way to spend 100 minutes that you could otherwise spend in a queue waiting to get tested for the virus out of 10

“Long ago, the world was full of wonder. It was adventurous. It was exciting. And most of all, there was magic.” – and then Disney bought it and drained every skerrick of magic out of it - Onward