Friday, March 6, 2020

Family Quest: ONWARD

Pixar spent the last decade mostly turning out sequels, some good (Incredibles 2) and many middling. Now the once great factory of fresh computer animated classics has given us its new standalone feature: Onward. Like the best of its recent original works — Coco, Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur — it’s a film about growing up, a coming-of-age scramble nestled inside a melancholy metaphor that pushes on the emotional pressure points of its audience. Here’s a movie about an elf-boy in a world that imagines the fantasy pasts of cheap paperbacks and roleplaying games is now our modern day — the wilds of wizards and castles and enchanted forests now suburbs and gas stations and highways, the magic of staffs and spells now smartphones and minivans. (As you might expect, the widescreen visual look of the world has its little delights and storybook charm.) The boy is missing his long-dead father acutely on this, his sixteenth birthday. Luckily, his dad left a present to be opened on this day: a spell that’ll bring him back for just one day. It goes slightly wrong, leaving only a pair of legs in father-fashion khakis and loafers. (There are some good gags made out of this, and the more upsetting details are assiduously ignored.) Now the son must find a phoenix jewel (rebirth and all) with the help of his oafish Dungeons & Dragons-style fanboy older brother, a quest that takes them out into the magic on the edges of society, while testing their prickly fraternal bond. So it’s also the vintage Pixar special: the buddy comedy. It’s as sprightly a chase as it is a jab in the tear ducts, somehow giving the audience something that’s at once overfamiliar and unexpected, warmly funny, easily appealing, and comforting even in its rougher edges.

The film is full of typical Pixar touches, though more modest in its effect and depth. Writer-director Dan Scanlon (of the strangely forgotten Monsters University) brings to the picture genre play that is featherlight, a gentle needling of fantasy tropes while wholeheartedly embracing the fetch quest construction. But for however simple the plot, the emotions do run deep and true. It may have the shape of a machine-tooled moving response machine — all levers and buttons flipped and pushed to shape the necessary payoffs — but the warm vocal performances of Tom Holland and Chris Pratt are loveably believable cartoonish brothers, and the ache of their need to connect with a father they barley knew is sometimes palpable. The ultimate conclusion is surprising and satisfying, though I wish the movie was better equipped to dig deeper and more cleverly into its premise. (What, exactly, is the relationship between the very real magic and the rest of society? No underground support group like the shark’s in Finding Nemo? And why doesn’t the boy’s mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) get to spend time with her husband’s legs?) Pixar of yore would’ve wrung every drop of wonder and delight out of its conceit, its premise, and its world. Imagine the airtight structure of Toy Story or the swooning accumulated details of WALL-E. Alas. Onward nonetheless points a way forward, reaffirming the studio’s commitment to new stories to tell in its typically detailed style and earnest emotive effort. The characters are just too sympathetic and the quest too pure to deny. A sequence where the lad prepares to step out over a bottomless pit is as good — suspenseful and charming — as any I’ve seen of late, and a fine metaphor for the company itself. I’d rather Pixar be taking that leap of faith than retreading past successes any day. Onward and upward.

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