Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Movie Review: Onward

By rights, if there was ever a movie I should have loved, this would be it. In a sense, it was made for me: a Pixar production rooted in Dungeons & Dragons lore starring a pair of Marvel veterans... it's like they're checking off my favorite things.

But I didn't love it. Frankly, I'd rank it near the bottom of the Pixar catalog, alongside Monsters University and The Good Dinosaur. Keep in mind, that's still decent company. Hell, I even mostly enjoyed Cars 2, and that's easily the worst Pixar release to date. But don't expect top-tier Pixar quality, because you're not getting it.

Before I go on, I want to specify I watched this on Disney+, not in a theater. Hell, I haven't seen ANYTHING in a theater since King of the Monsters (it's been a crazy year). For what it's worth, Onward is exceptionally good for what wound up being a direct-to-streaming feature for most people. Yeah, technically it was in theaters for a week or two before getting shifted to the internet, but it didn't have a real run - it might as well be a Disney+ original, and it's ridiculously good in that context. If you've got an account, by all means push Onward to the top of your queue immediately.

But even though it sort of wound up as a Disney+ release, it was intended to be a major motion picture, and that's the way I'm going to review it. And in that context, Onward was ultimately unsatisfying. Again, that's coming from someone whose interests align perfectly with the movie's premise.

Let's start with the animation. Onward looks good, the way all Pixar movies look good. It's colorful and stylish, with the typical Pixar production value. But while it's good, there's nothing particularly eye-catching or memorable. Visually, this is more "cartoonish" than the typical Pixar film, which certainly isn't a bad thing. But it makes Onward feel almost more like a Dreamworks production. Again, that's not necessarily a bad thing, but it contributed to the feeling you're not really getting a Pixar experience out of this.

The writing - particularly the humor - is solid but well below what I've come to expect from the studio. It's mainly an issue because, despite the usual injection of drama, this is fundamentally a comedy. It's a road trip adventure with a zany premise and a constantly expanding cast of wacky side characters, and the jokes just don't land as well as I want them to. That's not to say there aren't exceptions, but on average I wanted more.

Speaking of wanting more, there's a B-plot where the main characters' mother teams up with another supporting character, and they go on a mini-quest of their own. This is easily the best part of the movie - had this been given more time or payoff, I suspect I'd be speaking of the film in more favorable terms overall. Instead, they were relegated to a side-story that felt like someone at Pixar was acknowledging the studio still has a problem giving female characters enough to do, yet still failing to adequately address the issue. On a similar note, the movie offers the first official example of a lesbian character in Pixar's filmography in a role that's better than nothing, but isn't really cutting it in 2020.

Now, let's talk casting, because if there's one astonishingly blatant unforced error, it's here.

Onward's two leads are ostensibly Tom Holland and Chris Pratt. I say "ostensibly" because - and I really can't stress this enough - this movie stars Spider-Man and Star Lord. The accent Tom Holland uses is the one he developed for Peter Parker, rather than his own. If you're less familiar with the MCU, it might not bother you, but I found it oddly jarring. Even more so because Pratt was there, equally recognizable. I found it distracting from the start, but towards the end of the movie...

Okay. I'm going to try and talk around this, because Onward is basically still "new" and I don't want to delve too deeply into spoiler territory, but there's a last-minute reveal about Pratt's character wedged into the third act where it becomes extremely relevant that this actor is playing this character. Like, AU fanfic levels of relevant, to the point I stared bewildered at the screen trying to figure out if this was an intentional callback to Guardians of the Galaxy, an odd coincidence, or the result of a dozen or so rewrites. I've rarely if ever been pulled out of a movie this completely, and - just so we're clear - this isn't a trivial moment. It's an emotional beat that's essential for selling the upcoming resolution to the movie.

Again, maybe this will bother you and maybe it won't. In my case, it shattered any sense of immersion I had and left me chuckling at what should have been a heartfelt moment. And it could have been fixed either by casting a different actor (I don't think Pratt was the best choice for the role, anyway) or by rewriting a couple lines to change the scenario slightly. I honestly don't know what they were thinking.

Despite all that, the movie was enjoyable on the small screen. There were a couple moments and ideas I loved. The van was great, several fantasy elements were intriguing, and I already mentioned the mother's B-plot - this certainly isn't a failure. But I imagine I'd have felt cheated if I'd paid to see this in a theater rather than checking it out on Disney+.

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