Directed by: Dan Scanlon Written by: Scanlon, Keith Bunin and Jason Headley
Prior to seeing Onward I saw brief interviews with its writer-director Dan Stanlon. Scanlon spoke of how the film was inspired by his own relationship with his brother and father. He then called Pixar a special company, because it takes chances on “real” stories such as his own. On the one hand it is easy to see why Scanlon would say this: imagine getting the opportunity to turn one of your defining life-stories into a mass-watched fantasy epic!
On the other hand, Scanlon’s one-liner about Pixar’s uniqueness is revisionist history. It erases what has actually made the studio iconic. In my review of Toy Story 4 I argued there were two distinct eras of Pixar filmmaking: Toy Story-to-Ratatouille and Wall-E-to-the-present. The key distinction between these eras is that Wall-E, along with some of the films that followed it, is almost too depressing to be a family movie.
Alternatively, one could argue that it was Ratatouille that started the modern Pixar era. Ratatouille is an inventive and funny family film. Unlike Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3, it doesn’t beg for an Oscar via tear-jerker moments. Nonetheless, Ratatouille’s formula differs in a key way from earlier Pixar films. Prior to Ratatouille, Pixar made movies based around concrete categories: toys, bugs, monsters, sea-creatures, superheroes and cars. Rataoutille may star rats, but it is not a “rat” movie. Unlike the Toy Story films, which deal with the toy-specific problems of “realness” and “obsolescence,” Rataoutille’s story is a human tale, albeit one with rodent characteristics.
Onward is a Ratatouille-style Pixar film. While it is nominally about fantasy creatures, its stars are highly anthropomorphic, and their struggles largely transcend their Elvin identities. The film explains that the same technologies that we enjoy became available in its fantasy realm. Because magic is supposedly difficult to use, the arrival of electricity, cars, etc rendered it obsolete.
Onward is also a clear product of the Wall-E era (though unlike the older movie, Onward is unequivocally kid friendly). Sadness is introduced to the film right away as we are introduced to brothers Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt). Ian is celebrating his sixteenth birthday, and on the occasion is reminded of the absence of his deceased father.
The plot takes off as Ian and Barley’s mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) presents the boys with a gift left behind by their father: a magic staff. The staff contains a spell to temporarily resurrect the father, but a shortcoming in the spell’s execution sends the boys off on a road-trip in search of further magic.
The character of Barley is one of the film’s strongpoints. A Dungeons & Dragons nerd, and civilly-disobedient protector of magical-heritage-buildings, Barley has nuance as a character. While his hobbies make him seem like your traditional, goofball sidekick, he is in fact a fairly competent young-man. Unfortunately, his conservative-suburban society is biased against his particular competences. Pixar has produced a good-roster of sidekick-protagonists over the years: Buzz Lightyear, Mike Wazowski, Dory and Sadness, but with Barley, Scanlon and his co-writers came up with a memorably subversive way to deploy the sidekick role.
Less compelling for me, however, was Ian. Onward, in the broadest sense, shares a narrative formula with Finding Nemo. Both stories are rooted in the death of a young parent. Both are road-trip movies. And both road trips pair a worry-wart protagonist with a goofy sidekick. But this is where the difference between pre-Ratatouille and post-Ratatouille Pixar comes in. Finding Nemo is rooted in the category of “sea-creatures.” As such, its parental death is specific to the marine context. Viewers are lulled into a wonderful-life under the sea, but then made to live through a sea-specific-specific danger as it takes its terrible toll. Finding Nemo’s protagonist Marlin is shaped by an obvious trauma, and we viewers share in that trauma.
Onward by contrast is not a film whose narrative pieces all come from a category. While pre-Wall-E Pixar films can have sad moments, Onward set out to be sad from the get go. It has no scene that compares to Nemo’s barracuda moment. Instead, it just has expository dialogue where Ian and his Mom tell us how they feel, and consequently how the movie would like viewers to feel. This discrepancy continues throughout the films’ runs. While Marlin develops due to a combination of friendship, quirky luck and genuine learning, all of which stem naturally from his aquatic-context, Ian is regularly set up with situations where it is overtly stated that he just has to “believe in himself” or otherwise do the right thing.
Onward is a cautionary tale of how deriving a fictional-universe from emotions and ideas, instead of doing it the other way around, can make those ideas come across as predictable and plot-stunting. Toy Story found its depth, not by repeating familiar platitudes of human sentimentality, but through exploring the theoretical anxieties of plastic beings. A Bug’s Life, meanwhile, is a great example of a “we are the 99%” fable, because it doesn’t force that message on viewers. Rather builds to it as it observes the collectivist yet conservative dynamics within an ant-colony.
On the other hand, Onward is undoubtedly a wonderfully imaginative film, and there are some interesting ideas in its core plot. Critical as I am of the way Ian’s self-doubt and sadness are portrayed, at very least, the epiphany he has at the film’s climax is a clever one. Hopefully Pixar can remember what made its early films classics, and return to this formula in the future. Onward may be a stumbling block in that regard, but its celebration of benevolent-nerdiness and nostalgia at very least makes it worth the watch.