Onward: a weepy Pixar animation that earns every teardrop

Director Dan Scanlon makes plot the strong suit of this father-son story.

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The tear-jerker had always been sold as a female phenomenon, but a wave of weepies in the late 1980s and early 1990s encouraged male viewers to reach for the Mansize Kleenex. This was around the same time as the publication of Iron John: A Book About Men, Robert Bly’s dubious handbook for modern masculinity, as well as the rise of Robin Williams and much chatter about the “inner child” and the New Man. Among the films released in this period were Field of Dreams, in which Kevin Costner plays a farmer granted a last game of catch with his late father, and Coupe de Ville, a road movie about three brothers driving an antique car to their parents’ home – a mission contrived by their dear old dad to bring them all closer together. Onward, the new animated adventure from Pixar, contains elements of both films but none of their nauseating sentimental indulgence. Any tears it earns are honest ones.

The backdrop is a parallel world exactly like our own but populated by mythical creatures: Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) and his older brother, the heavy metal enthusiast Barley (Chris Pratt), are blue-skinned, pointy-eared elves who dress like any other suburban teenagers. Confusingly, their mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) refers to Ian on his 16th birthday as “Mr Adult Man” and only once describes him as an elf, but then the script, co-written by the director Dan Scanlon, is prone to a certain fuzziness. There are mobile phones and satnav devices but vehicles haven’t been modified to allow centaurs unimpeded access. It is also never properly explained why the magic that once brightened the land has fallen into disrepair and disuse: “It was hard to manage” is the closest we get to finding out, which isn’t close enough.

Now the neighbourhood unicorns are feral and flea-bitten, fighting like raccoons over upturned bins, and the fearsome manticore (Octavia Spencer) who manages the local novelty tavern keeps her wings folded behind her back and uses her fire-breathing skills only to heat the mozzarella sticks. What this is, in effect, is Far, Far Away, the fairy tale land from Shrek, but with in-jokes mercifully thin on the ground. Knowing that nothing dates a movie faster than pop-cultural references, Scanlon makes plot his movie’s strong suit. Ian and Barley’s late father, who died before the younger brother was born, has bequeathed to them a magic staff, along with a visitation spell which will conjure him up so they can all spend one final day together. Except that when the spell is accidentally aborted halfway through, the boys are left with only a partial parent. To the list of oddball Pixar characters (a metal box and a steering wheel in WALL-E, an eyeball in Monsters, Inc) we can now add a pair of disembodied legs, which communicate by tapping their feet.

Ian and Barley attach this lower half to an extendable leash and hit the highway in search of a phoenix gem, which they hope will complete the spell and restore their father before the magic expires at sunset the following day. What ensues is an old-fashioned quest where the mode of transport is not a trusty steed but Barley’s clapped-out van, Guinevere, which has plastered on its side an illustration of Pegasus leaping through squiggles of purple lightning – the sort of image that has kept Camden Market stallholders in business for decades.

No phoenix gems for guessing what comes next. The socially awkward Ian, whose fear of merging on the freeway is a metaphor for his emotional reticence, begins to see improvements in his confidence, as well as in his opinion of his loud and embarrassing brother. (There are no villains here, only low self-esteem.) Predictability doesn’t make those elements any less pleasurable, largely because Scanlon is so adept at dramatising internal crises. When Ian has to cross a gorge using a little sorcery and a lot of faith in Barley, it produces one of several Indiana Jones moments that also advances our understanding of character. And the detail of the animation is as exceptional as ever, from Barley’s beard fluff and the fraying cut-off sleeves of his denim waistcoat to the dull gleam of petrol-station neon in the oily, rain-soaked tarmac. When the cherry-and-blue flashing lights of a stationary patrol car suffuse the nocturnal mist, the effect is positively Hopperesque.

There had been advance word that the movie would feature the first openly gay character in a Disney production, but the studio’s representatives shouldn’t be patting themselves on the back too heartily. After all, it was eight years ago that ParaNorman, produced by the stop-motion animation studio Laika, included a gay main character whose sexuality was disclosed casually and only at the end of the film. Audience members who wanted to exercise their right to bigotry would have needed to painstakingly reassess any sympathy they had felt for him in the preceding 90 minutes. Compared to such a sophisticated approach, the inclusion of a minor figure who makes a passing reference to her girlfriend looks like very small beer indeed. It’s one of the few respects in which Onward disappoints, dawdling when it might have hit the gas and forged ahead. 

Onward (U)
dir: Dan Scanlon

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 06 March 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Inside No 10

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