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Onward

Back in 2009, Bob Peterson and Peter Sohn came up with the idea of an alternate history in which the dinosaurs never went extinct. The film was set for release in 2012, and interviews from the time show that the filmmakers had a keen interest in exploring stereotypes through dinosaurs, asking what dinosaurs represent in the 21st century. Long story short, the film went through a myriad of revisions and delays until The Good Dinosaur finally saw release in November 2015. It is the only undisputed box office bomb in the otherwise legendary canon of Pixar, an uninspired snoozefest with barely a hint of the modern alternate history premise.

So here’s Onward, in which Pixar takes another crack at the “alternate history” conceit to more successful — though still shaky — results.

Our film is set on a world with two moons and no humans, so it’s immediately obvious that we’re not dealing with Earth. Though it is a world populated by elves, manticores, pixies, ogres, centaurs, and other creatures recognizable in European fairy tales. More importantly, it’s a world of magic, in which wizards were on hand to help with everyone’s problems.

Until somebody discovered electricity. And that turned out to be so much easier. Thus technology advanced and the world became more recognizably modern, while obsolete magic faded into history.

Our plot begins with the elven Lightfoot family, with the younger son (Ian, voiced by Tom Holland) serving as our protagonist. He’s hopelessly awkward and endlessly paranoid, as capably demonstrated in a sequence in which he tries and fails to not be so awkward and paranoid. It’s really quite endearing in execution.

His older brother is Barley, voiced by Chris Pratt. This is the kind of guy who rushes into everything, all heart without much of the way of brainpower. Moreover, he’s a fanboy for the olden days, with a strong passion for a “historically accurate” tabletop game called “Quests of Yore”.

As their mother (Laurel, voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) says at one point, Ian is afraid of everything and Barley is afraid of nothing. The perfect recipe for a buddy road comedy.

Anyway, the boys’ father died a long time ago of the dreaded Disney Parent Flu. Barley only has three or four distant half-forgotten memories of his father, and Ian’s got nothing but a metric ton of daddy issues. Then Ian’s 16th birthday rolls around, and Laurel brings out a package that the elder Lightfoot left behind for his two sons.

The package turns out to be a wizard’s staff, an extremely rare Phoenix Gem, and a spell of the Lightfoot patriarch’s invention. What does the spell do? It brings Papa Lightfoot back to life for 24 hours. Yes, seriously.

Long story short, the spell goes awry and the Lightfoot father has only materialized from the waist down. Thus Ian and Barley have 24 hours to find another Phoenix Gem and fix the spell before their dad fades back to the afterlife for good.

I have so many questions.

First of all, it’s clearly and plainly established that the elder Lightfoot was not a wizard, but merely an accountant who dabbled in magic. It’s likewise established that magic has been obsolete for centuries at least. So how the hell did he get a functioning wizard’s staff? How did he ever get something so impossibly rare and fragile as a Phoenix Gem? How the high holy fuck did he invent a spell that brings someone back to freaking life?! None of this is ever explained.

It’s established that every quest has to begin at the Manticore’s Tavern, and the Manticore herself (voiced with aplomb by Octavia Spencer) is the would-be oracle who tells our heroes where to find the thing they’re questing for. Who or what put the Manticore in charge of this is anyone’s guess. And then of course we get to the back half of the film, in which Ian and Barley have to survive an elaborate gauntlet on their way to the terrible curse that guards the Phoenix Gem. Who built this gauntlet? Who put the curse there? Why was any of this put in place? Never explained.

It’s clearly established that magic is difficult to master, yet Ian is somehow such a natural that he’s able to go from novice to professional in 24 hours. Moreover, it’s established that all of this monsters and magic stuff is settled history in this universe, yet for whatever reason, none of it is apparently taught in school. Thus it’s the board game fanatic who’s the expert on all this lore, while the withdrawn studious bookworm knows none of it.

To be entirely fair, the movie is such a love letter to high fantasy that of course the filmmakers had to find some way for the D&D fan to save the day. And of course high fantasy has always been full of arbitrary rules and contrived shortcuts, going all the way back to goddamn Greek mythology at least. But it’s frustrating that the plot and premise are full of so many holes when Pixar is otherwise phenomenal at world-building. So much love and attention has been packed into every last detail of the setting, it’s disappointing to see the plot held together with limp hand-waving.

This brings me to the central conceit of the past clashing with the present. Old temples getting cleared away to make room for new homes. Pixies and manticores who don’t need to fly, because cars and airplanes will serve just fine. This is genuinely fascinating stuff, and virtually nothing is done with it after the halfway point.

Instead, Pixar falls back on their tried-and-true family themes. Loss, grief, cooperation, forgiveness… these and other related themes are well-worn ground for Pixar. But hey, they do it like nobody else and it works beautifully.

Likewise, all the voice actors here are playing well within their respective wheelhouses, and they all turn in solid work. The central relationship between Ian and Barley is rock-solid, with fantastic chemistry between Holland and Pratt. Of course, it helps to have a disembodied pair of legs as a moderating influence between them, and the work done to make a pair of legs into such an expressive character is deeply inspired.

(Side note: To address the cyclops voiced by Lena Waithe, she’s only really present in one scene and her sexuality is only referred to in a throwaway line. Hollywood really needs to cut that shit out — either go for accurate representation or don’t, but quit begging for praise over half-measures.)

The animation and the comedy are all of Pixar’s typical high standard. The action is entertaining enough. But more than all of that, I was impressed with how the filmmakers employed setups and payoffs in genuinely clever ways. For every predictable plot turn, there were at least two or three remarkable curveballs. For a film that leans so heavily on standard fantasy conventions and follows the Monomyth to a T, that means a lot.

(Side note: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the short film that precedes this one. Taking full advantage of Disney’s recent acquisition, “Playdate with Destiny” is a romance parody starring Maggie Simpson. A convenient way to produce a Simpsons cartoon without paying any of the voice actors. Romantic parodies have been done to death and “The Simpsons” is far more iconic for its dialogue than its visual humor, so the short is definitely more forgettable than bad.)

Onward averages out to an okay film, though an “okay” film by Pixar standards is something else entirely. It’s certainly enjoyable enough, considering that everyone involved is doing what they do best. That said, it’s depressing how the basic fantasy-versus-modernity clash is all but completely abandoned halfway through, and the basic foundations of the plot are riddled with holes. The fine strokes are all so beautiful, it’s frustrating how the broader strokes got botched like this.

The movie doesn’t live up to its promises of delivering anything new, but it does the old stuff really well. It’s worth a look.

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