In Review: Onward

"In Times of old the world the was full of wonder and magic, but times change . . ."

Synopsis: In a magical realm, things are not very different than they are on Earth, today. The magic that people once lived by has gone from everyday existence. Where there were fire spells, now the light bulb provides. Magic has come to be thought of as something which is an inconvenience, and to rely it makes you equivalent to a cave-swelling, recluse. The Lightfoot family are Laurel (mum voiced by Octavia Spencer), Barley (older brother), voiced by Chris Pratt and Ian (younger brother), voiced by Tom Holland. Sadly, the father of the family, Wilden, passed away some years ago. Wilden left a gift, that he asked Laurel to only give to their sons when they were both sixteen. Ian’s sixteenth birthday sees the gift unwrapped, and it’s the start of a magical adventure, of the mystical sort, and the variety that only a certain type of special story can provide . . .

 

Story

The setting of an equivalent of a suburban environment, only with mythical and fantastical creatures, sort of plays on high and low concepts of fantasy. It’s a clever way for Dan Scanlon, Keith Bunin, and Jason Headley to tell what’s a deeply human story. In all stories, characters are our way in. They let us see and feel what is happening. The most memorable ones always have something in common: they go through some sort of change. No matter how many times we see it, if we’re to buy in, we have to like them and want to know what will happen. This is the film’s strength. The quest of the hero isn’t glory or to save a planet. Ian has never met his father and craves to have, more than anything.  He lacks belief in himself and struggles to find friends, because of it. The depiction of his anxiety is very real, as he has to live with it, in a world that isn’t set up to accommodate it. It’s him that has to fit, and power through. His older brother, Barley, seems to be quite the opposite. He is extroverted and lives out his inner self. Barley is passionate about the magic of old, and can’t understand why everyone else isn’t bothered, including Ian. All that changes when the brothers’ mum gives them the gift that their father wanted them to have when they were both of age.

The magical staff, that is the gift passed on, can supposedly bring back their father, for a very short time. They are surprised to learn that their father, Wilden, was a wizard (not in the traditional sense, but he was interested in it and had the gift of magic. Not everyone does, in this universe). Barley tries to cast the spell, as he is versed in spells and other magical knowledge, due to his interest in the game, Yore. It turns out that Ian is the one who is gifted with the ability to cast spells. He begins to bring his father back. Due to his inexperience, he only summonses the legs of his father, and in order to complete the spell, so he can finally meet his father, he requires a special crystal. This is where the action really gets going, Both brothers take off, on what proves to be an experience which will leave both of them with a new perspective on their lives. Of course, there’s fun and obstacles along the way.

During the adventure, things get turned on their head, as Ian has to face up to some of his biggest fears, including driving along the freeway, in Barley’s beloved, beaten up old van, Gwynevere. The van gets them nearer to their destination, but only just. As movie vehicles go, it’s a good one. It almost has a character of its own, and its condition is a really fun way to show that the two brothers are up against it. Something else the brothers end up going against is one another. Tension’s always required, and the emotional impact it makes in this film is impressive. Ian is finding himself, whilst Barley is apparently standing firm as the leader of the voyage, as he isn’t scared of anything, apparently . . . What plays out is a fusion of a coming of age story, a buddy film, and a very well written comedy. There are rises and dips, that promise pay off that is delivered upon. The perceived inevitability isn’t what you might expect, and most of all, the path leading to it is enjoyable and full of fun, as well as some genuinely heartfelt moments.  Like so many, it’s one for all ages. You’d have to have a hard heart not to be melted by what finally comes out, as the film comes to its climax. As it does, there’s a foreshadowed showdown, acts of self-sacrifice and lessons to be learned. Everyone gets a “big” moment before things end. Well written and nuanced, the story captures you.

Acting

With only the voices to go off, it’s not easy to judge the acting, as per a movie when you see the actors getting to grips with a role. That said, Chris Pratt and Tom Holland show their camaraderie with aplomb. Even without seeing their faces, the fun being had at times is tangible. So much emotion goes into the voice, that the actors must surely have been drawn to the roles, because of the characters. Wonderfully cast, especially with Pratt as the older, more cocksure Barley, and Holland as a more nervy, awkward in his own skin Ian. The two leads get everything right, even the squabbling. There’s a perfect tension between rivalry and a need for one another. So much is unspoken, and yet it shines through, even with no facial expressions or bodily gesticulations available, from either. The two really are immersed, and perhaps the age difference between Pratt and Holland even helped to provide an air of feasibility, in terms of how their characters look at the world.

Animation can give away for an actor to transcend boundaries that the real world imposes; the appearance can be more easily accessible to children. That requires the nuance, and the personality of the character to present as they are, in the story world. Perhaps, it may even be harder to cement a solid performance, when relying wholly on vocal presence. Pratt and Holland make it appear effortless, in this case. The two give themselves over entirely and have as much a sense of who the other character is, as they do who they are themselves. It’s the studying of who they’re portraying that makes for such a strong leading line, in this movie. They don’t just have fun in this film, they do that in the way that Ian and Barley would. There’s an empathy ever-present, and at times it is hard to believe that they are not actually related. If they read the parts separately and the dialogue was edited together, it doesn’t show. They provide a seamless experience, never dipping or straying from the personalities of the characters.

Every good film needs characters that aren’t the main stars. Sometimes, one even gets to steal the show. That doesn’t happen here, as Pratt and Holland make sure of it, but there are still some individual efforts worthy of a mention. Octavia Spencer gets to the meat of what it is to be unhappy with who you are, but carry on. It’s inspiring to see, even via a character; “Cory” is who she plays, a Manticore. She really captures how important it is to be who you are meant to be, and how life can seem so different once you do. The boy’s mother is also well-expressed by Julia-Louis Dreyfus. Her difficult role could have been fluffed, but as it is the balance between the concern and having to let go, that parents must juggle as their children get older and more independent, is realized.

 

CGI&Action

When a film relies so heavily on the visual elements, it can sometimes detract from the necessity for a good story to be at the heart of everything. This film doesn’t. If anything, the way things are put together adds to the story. Small details matter, when the emotional thump of a film is the centre of the plot. The characters move with the fluidity you’d expect from modern computer wizardry, but do more than just that. Little flinches, for example, when Ian is nervous, are honed and really help to keep who the character is central. Additionally, when the time comes for development, it isn’t overlooked. The voice acting is married to the mood and each individual circumstance of the character. Barley has a deep belly laugh, and a big personality, generally. Once viewers see there’s more to him than that, then the team who helped bring him to life reflect that too.

One element that is deserving of its own focused analysis is the way that a character who is not a complete body still comes across very much as if it is. If the writers and graphics people work together, as they have in this, then almost anything can get to be seen as fully human. Again, its the balanced movement which is responsible for this, and the considered way that the pair of legs moves. Ultimately, viewers need to care for the thing they’re seeing, and the true genius of a creative mind is drawing that emotion from a character, When it’s done well, it doesn’t matter who, or even what they are. This proves that. The same can be said too of Barley’s van, Gwynevere. That has no human features, but you still see it as a character. The way it was drawn and how the action sequences are married to that are responsible for that.

Pacing is often an aspect that can take a hit, when a film relies on special effects. Sometimes, those who can create the wonders of modern cartoons on the big screen seem to want to show what they can do, for the sake of it. The magic in the film is limited for when it’s required, for the plot to continue. It’s as well-choreographed as if it was a live-action film, with enough big moments. The biggest of these is at the end when the drama and tension come to their inevitable closure. The impact of what’s coming has already been earned, so when it does, things feel suitably placed to occur. This includes the rejoining of the film’s characters who have been on their separate journeys (even the two main characters are temporarily separated, but then come together again), but are united again to face down a final challenge that can only be overcome as a collaboration. Everything happens when it should, and how. The look and feel of the film move on, as the drama and tension build.

Overall

What Pixar has shown is that again, whilst it may be a part of Disney’s screen property portfolio, it’s very much its own thing. Unmistakably so. A beating heart of a narrative, that has the rare quality of justifying the journey of the film, making it much more than just a throwaway kid’s film. There’s a maturity to things, which is achieved by a human story, one that blends to the tragic and the beautiful so well. It’s a film about finding out who we are, and then coming to terms with that, when what’s discovered might not be what we thought it was. So much of what happens is relatable, but even that which isn’t for younger kids doesn’t stop the film from being a basic adventure, with lots of fun along the way. Taking a concept and putting it into an in-world story has its problems, potentially. Again, those clever folks at Pixar don’t try to do anything that hasn’t been done; that said, they don’t just repeat and regurgitate. They know what makes people tick, demonstrate universal struggles, in a way that achieves the all-important buying in of an audience. In a film like this, audiences see who they have been, ponder on that, and then have the realization that just because life changes, and it might force them to have to adopt new ways to cope, it doesn’t mean they have to lose who they are. Like all great stories, this one shows you the mirror and asks you if you like what you see. If you don’t, it leaves it up to you to do what’s required, reminding you that only you can; the rub though is that it reminds you that magic only ever exists if you choose to believe in it.

9
Onward
  • Acting
    9.1
  • Story
    9.3
  • CGI&Action
    8.8
  • Incidental Music
    8.7
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