Quick Review: 2.75/5 stars. This movie has some fine qualities, including Pixar’s top notch animation. It also has some massive pitfalls that left me deeply unsatisfied. If you want your kids to learn lessons about acceptable behavior in society, learning from your mistakes, or just basic good and bad pick another movie. I won’t be taking my kids to see it. Note: This movie is a solid PG, not G, for sure. There are bits, for me, that push even that rating. (Much) Long(er) Review: Since I believe if you can’t something nice, don’t say anything at all, let’s start with the good.
Have you been missing Chris Pratt ala Parks and Recreation? Well, the animation team has created a near perfect, elven approximation. The facial expressions are particularly on point, and Chris’s classic humor shines through.
The scope of the film is ambitious, including a host of magical races and creatures. There are diverse relationships a plenty. And the inclusion of a mom character as something other than a naive ninny or a troll-like terror was a breath of fresh air. Seeing her using her workout skills to help save the day made my mommy heart happy.
As far as themes go, and there are several woven throughout the film, the one that I think is most needed in our culture today is that there is a price for convenience. We have to choose to do hard things in a time and culture so saturated with ease. The premise is that magic was the way things got done, but it was hard, not everyone could do it, and it took work and time. Enter SCIENCE! And behold the need to run, fly, light fires, and struggle for certain basics disappeared. The result is the loss of crafts, skills, and abilities that once brought meaning and pride to the people’s of the Onward world. Ian, the main character, played by Tom Holland, is pretty overwhelmed by life in general and has been nursing the belief that if he could just meet his dad then he’d have a handle on things. He discovers that he has the ability to do magic, but none of the study and skills necessary to do the one thing he really wants to do. I really appreciated that the movie shows him failing in his attempts to learn, rather than having him just step into immediate power. The learning curve to any valuable skill is steep and the sooner our kids realize that there is no quick fix to excellence, the better. At the same time the whole movie takes place in about a day, so the idea of sustained work over time gets a less than realistic treatment. It’s a cartoon, I get it, but still.
Several of the jokes were laugh out loud funny. Octavia Spencer as the overwhelmed Manticore juiced on energy drinks is pretty great. Fun things include a giant Cheeto boat, the pet dragon, and… I don’t know maybe the feral unicorns?
A note for my more conservative friends: there is a moment when a cyclops police officer, ostensibly female, references her girlfriend’s kid while trying to express support for a fellow officer’s parenting efforts. This moment is quick and will likely go over most kids’ heads. Or it might lead your kids to ask questions, express confusion. So, there it is; the normalization of the gay lifestyle in a movie marketed directly to children, a thing LGBTQ activists and leaders said in the early nineties would never happen. However, you feel about it, reason to grieve or celebrate, it’s here. Let me be clear: if this was the only discordant piece of the movie for me then I would have given it a much higher rating, but it’s not.
In fact, let’s talk about choices and consequences. Most children, ages 5-10, presumably the films target audience, are still sorting out the basics of good behavior. They are learning how to get along with peers, when certain behaviors cross the line, and what the consequences of their choices are, either in the short or long run. Most children’s movies affirm, albeit a super oversimplified version, of this basic idea. Do behavior A, experience consequence B. There is almost zero of that, especially for the most problematic behaviors in the movie. The police authority in this movie is a joke, and is flagrantly flouted again and again with no consequences for anyone.
- The Manticore sets her own tavern on fire, endangers the lives of all her patrons, and sneaks off with the Mom, who lies to the officer in charge.
- Mom is dating a cop, apparently should know better, and yet breaks the law left, right, and center.
- A gang of pixies trashes a convenience store, no reprisal. The troll (or ogre maybe) behind the counter stands there passive and pathetic, taking the abuse of the tine creatures.
- The pixies start fights with everyone, are hyper aggressive, and eventually chase the main characters down a busy freeway, wielding maces and chains in an attempt to run the van off the road. The consequence of this insane behavior? They get flung into the air, discover that their wings actually do work, and become a gang of flying pixies that later accost drivers for, “being in their flight path.”
Not enough to deter you? Cue Chris Pratt’s character Barley. He is a man baby, spending his time playing D&D, not taking anything, including his own life and behavior very seriously with the exception of the demolition of historically magical and significant sites. Then he’s galvanized to protest, etc. His means of transport is his barely held together van, the glove box of which is bursting with parking tickets. His driving is appallingly dangerous. Anyone employing the same level of carelessness would have had their license suspended years ago. No pedestrian is safe if he is in the neighborhood. He goes on an epic quest with his brother where he is a source of occasional insight and constant trouble. What does he learn from this journey of struggle and mistakes? That he was an awesome big brother to Ian so the fact that his life has stalled, he doesn’t have a steady job, isn’t really contributing to society in a meaningful way doesn’t really matter. He doesn’t need to examine his flaws because he’s just fine as he is. And his mom’s police officer boyfriend will smooth everything over. He ends the movie rebuilding the van he trashed on the quest, and that’s about it. There’s no sense that he will be changing the trajectory of his life. He is his brother’s side kick, advisor, and comic relief.
But Anika, I dig a bumbling sidekick and sometimes in real life bad people get away with doing bad things. Fine. Agreed, sometimes. But when it comes to my kids’ viewing material I like it to be a little more idealized. Let’s aim for best case scenario and if we fall short at least we are leagues ahead of violent biker gangs endangering people’s lives.
You know what isn’t idealized here? The story telling. This story feels like, despite having three writers, maybe there were thirty. And they were trying to please too many people, hurt no feelings, and make this journey as stilted as possible.
The plot is super uneven, the exposition is obvious and trite, and the ending isn’t particularly satisfying.
Ian is the newish kid in school despite the house not looking like it’s been the site of a recent move because reasons? Everyone else seems to pretty much have long term routines established, except for Ian, who is having new kid issues, despite reaching the traditional age of majority for his society.
He happens to run into an old college friend of his dad’s. Who, despite saying he was sorry to hear of the man’s passing, and clearly has an opportunity to really connect with Ian (also if he knew Dad does he not know mom too?), totally blows him off. Ian is clearly interested in hearing more about his dad and what he was like as a younger man. A real person would exchange a phone number, offer to catch up again another time. Nope. Just see ya!
A police officer, and colleague of his stepdad’s (maybe, we aren’t given a distinct relationship there), tells them, point blank that Barley is a screwup. In what professional situation, and supposedly in the presence of a family member, would it be ok to call someone a screw up? None! It would be a major faux pa that might result in new tensions at work if not some kind of disciplinary action. But not here, ’cause plot device!!
The manticore has been handing out the same map to the same gem with the need for the same sword for hundreds of years, but no one’s found it yet or needed the magical sword. Clearly, Ian and Barley’s dad was the only person still hunting magic in the modern world, and they are just super geniuses able to put the clues together. *cue eye roll*
Car accident, again on a massively busy freeway, draws no attention from others including the police that seem to be everywhere else all the time. Ian and Barley run into them when driving down an old side road, Officer Bolt Colton can call up a four car back up squadron out of nowhere, but when angry biker pixies are terrorizing folk and causing serious accidents, well I guess the boys in blue are just busy.
We spend the whole movie being story promised that we will meet Dad. We don’t. We watch from afar as Barley gets the chance to say goodbye again, while Ian never gets to talk to him at all. This is supposed to be some kind of aha! for Ian. He doesn’t need to meet his dad because he has Barley there to look out for him this whole time. ok, fine, but we don’t get to hear the conversation at all, or even see a genuine expression on Dad’s face. We get a third hand account from Barley after the fact. And while an adult might realize that Barley is not fearless, but perpetually fearful of all adulting behaviors and responsibility, the movie plays him off as someone others see as being stupid brave.
This movie had really good intentions. Maybe Pixar was trying to make a “brothers” movie to correspond with the Frozen sisters? Maybe they started with a few good ideas that couldn’t aggregate into a great movie? Maybe they went back to the drawing board too many times with too many voices in the telling? But given that I watched this movie from the second row with someone’s crying baby next to me, I think we can see the ultimate destination to which those intentions led. If you want to take the kiddos, preview it first, for sure. If you aren’t super excited to see it, don’t.
Until next time, enjoy the show.