By Andrea Thompson
Even if the latest Pixar film “Onward” is full of the same tired messages about family, at least the whole family is included, from the brothers who are the heart of the film’s true love story, to the mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) who proves herself to be a warrior in every sense, and even her new boyfriend (Mel Rodriguez), who is supportive under some of the craziest circumstances Disney has ever mustered.
“Onward” begins as a loving tribute to the world of gaming and stays that way, even as the land of elves, epic quests, and especially, magic, encounters an entirely new phenomenon…electricity. And rolls with it. Give it some time, and you get a modern world much like our own, except it’s populated by elves, centaurs, and dragons, who have been domesticated as pets. Magic has mostly vanished, replaced by modern conveniences.
That’s not to say some, such as Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt, who’s far better heard than seen lately), aren’t trying to keep traditions alive in more ways than one. Sure, he’s chaining himself to old structures in a mostly futile attempt to keep modernization at bay, but he’s also indulging in the type of gaming that has far more meaning than your average tabletop game, since its roots lie in actual history, rather than the collaborative mythology its devoted disciples know today.
Barley’s younger brother Ian (Tom Holland) ironically has less of a personality, even if we get to know him better. He’s still pining for the father who passed away around the time he was born, but mostly he’s trying to get through high school and become the person he wants to be, rather than the bundle of insecurities that’s so damn recognizable, even if Pixar makes it painfully hilarious. It’s on his 16th birthday that the tide seems to turn, when a gift left by his father turns out to not only be magic, but a chance to allow him to return for a day.
Since this happens at the beginning of the movie, things go awry…as in his father is resurrected only from the waist down. So Ian and Barley go off on a journey to recover the magical items to complete the process before the day is done, which is complicated by 21st century life, such as the badass warrior (an absolutely hilarious Octavia Spencer) who is meant to dispense wisdom more concerned about getting sued if she sends Ian and Barley on one of those epic, dangerous quests. Other magical creatures are equally out of touch with their roots, with centaurs barely exercising their running abilities, and pixies not even aware that their wings are meant for practical use.
The message seems obvious, but it’s difficult to know just what “Onward” is really advocating other than a crowd-pleaser that appeals to all by not standing for much of anything. In this movie, magic isn’t a force that could work horrors or wonders depending on the wielder, it’s a benevolent power firmly on the side of good, albeit with a curse in store every now and then. What “Onward” truly seems to revere is nostalgia for a past sans Internet and other tech conveniences, even if the end point seems to be a fusion of the old and the new. The movie does manage to build an platonic love story between brothers around it, with enough charm for the family experience Pixar does so well, but it’s very fitting that its cynical view of a world which seems stripped of potential for adventure makes for a more mundane viewing experience.