Monday, April 6, 2020

Onward

Spoiler-free!

In a fantasy realm where magic had faded from popular existence, two elf brothers, Barley and Ian, get a present from their father, who died before Ian was born. In the package, a wizard staff, a Phoenix Gem, and instructions for a spell -- a spell that will bring their dad back for 24 hours. Barley is a history buff and obsessed with magic, but it's Ian who makes the spell work... well, halfway. The gem explodes and their dad is just a pair of khakis, so the boys set out on a quest to find another Phoenix Gem and finish the spell before their time is up.

DID SOMEONE SAY "QUEST"??? SIGN ME UP.

I've been tired of Disney Pixar for about ten years, so it's about time for a revival! I knew the moment I saw the poster -- where high fantasy is blended with urban fantasy -- that I had a great chance of loving it, and I was right. Even if the story wasn't great I would have still enjoyed the distinctly fantasy world building, down to things like small dragons kept as pets instead of dogs, Valor being a van model, and angry fairies in motorcycle gangs eating Pixy Stix by the straw-full. That stuff was creative and fun, and the exact kind of attention to detail that I love to see in Pixar, but this is, in my opinion, the best Pixar fare since 2008, and has more working for it than an exciting and fleshed-out world.

Tom Holland plays Ian, and Barley is Chris Pratt. Two charming and talented actors, and their characters are the main reason this film works as well as it does. The way they're written and played. Pratt has first-rate hilarious line-delivery, and if anyone can make awkwardness likable, it's Tom Holland. The way the two characters' personalities clash and complement each other is heavenly, and you get lost in their easy conversations, whether they're arguing, having fun, in the middle of action, or anything in between. Ian is the main protagonist, and he makes a check list of things he wants to improve about himself.  Then, each stop along their quest pushes him unaware toward his goal.

I found it pleasantly predictable in many ways, but it had some wonderfully unexpected moments too, when it needed them.

And Barley could have easily fallen into the comic relief character trap (considering how effortlessly hilarious he is) but instead the character is fleshed out in some unexpectedly mature ways. He seems like the kind of guy that doesn't take anything seriously, but then there's the bridge scene -- or the hilariously epic "Rise to Valhalla" moment -- where his seriousness is truly serious, but still funny. Humor isn't something you turn on when it's comedy time and off when it's serious time. He's just genuine, and therefore can be both. And that's how the whole film is. It never announces it's time to switch gears; it's a constant flow of adventure, with all the ups and downs it needs present, but not showcased or ballooned to unnatural proportions.

Pixar has finally come up with an original story that appeals to me as an adult. Sure, it's still a kiddie film, not intellectually complex, and follows a basic and straightforward story structure, but every beat it hits is earned. It got a toe in the door with the fantasy world, then swept me up for the ride in a way I haven't allowed myself to go on with Pixar since Toy Story 3 introduced me to the gross feel of emotional manipulation. But Onward feels right in every way: The quest-style structure of little adventure vignettes built on top of each other... the way every detail is set up for later but not in an obvious way... a conflict that comes naturally from the core of the characters -- and a resolution that hits home because the story speaks for itself and doesn't need to be forced.

I see people dismiss it as "B-tier Pixar" and wonder when they forgot to value stories for the joy they bring.

I'm happy to know Pixar is still capable of winning storytelling along with its usual features of unique premises and beautiful animation. Onward is everything a great and worthy adventure should be -- full of Heart's Fire, you might say; and light, charming humor; and warm characters; and sweeping glorious fun; and inspired world building. And no, perhaps it won't appeal to everyone as strongly as it does me. But that, I think, is the great thing about Pixar. At their best, they send risky, niche stories out into the wild, and every once in a while, we wind up with something magical.

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