Pixar movies are generally a lot of fun, with an entertaining story for the kiddos and an understanding that it’s the grownups shelling out the money so give them a good time by working in adult story and jokes that fly over the kids’ heads. It’s a system that has worked very well for a couple of decades and has kept me a fan of this brand of kid movie for a while. Unfortunately for everyone, Disney bought Pixar a few years back, and in the traditional American juggernaut business model, immediately changed what had been working so well. Onward is a great example of that failure of brain cells.
In an alternate universe where fairy tale history grows into a modern American society, two pointy eared elf teens are living the standard high school life with a suburban house, a van, and a single mom. They discover a magic way to reunite with their beloved father who died years ago, and go on a dangerous and destructive quest to wrench even a few precious minutes of time and heal the weeping, jagged hole in their heart that having no father has caused. Actually, it’s the younger son, who never really knew his father who feels so strongly about risking everything for even a moment of bonding. He understands that a boy cannot fully grow into a man without a father, even if only for a few minutes.
It took me a while to figure out why I felt so dissatisfied while watching, and there you have it. I can see a young man wishing he had known his dad, but the agonizing level of broody, chest beating mourning became increasingly off putting as the danger levels and Hollywood destructiveness grew and grew to the male centric clim… er, crescendo at the end.
But, you may say, there is a mother figure in the film, and she’s portrayed very heroically. And then I would reply, is she? She teams up with a goofy Manticore and chases after them through the whole adventure, but doesn’t actually do anything except drive fast and make a new friend. Apparently, making a living and keeping the boys in house and home and school and showering them with love isn’t enough somehow. But at least they do give her a first name. In my head, this is the discussion at Disney while planning the film. “Hey, we’ve been hearing that people want to know why after a hundred years of making movies we’ve only had a mother character a handful of times. We should fix that by making a movie with a mother character who is marginalized while the sons go on a desperate trek to spend a few precious moments of time with their dead father.”
Ian, the younger son, is a list maker who always ends up crossing off rather than fulfilling the To Do items. On the quest he’s so excited he makes a new list Things I’d Like To Do With Dad: Play catch, Take a Walk, Heart to Heart, Laugh Together, Driving lesson, Share my life with him. All very tugging of heartstrings and angst level rising, but I really hate the message this is giving kids. His character does go through the requisite huge change to make him a better person at the end, but I never got over the idea that he’s had a terrible life because his dad is dead.
Onward is pretty and frenetic but a lot of the funny moments were flat, and it was kid funny not Over The Kids’ Head funny. The boys are guided by Barley’s, the older brother, super devotion to Quests of Yore, a stand in for D&D which I suppose is a gift to the parents but even when the game proved super helpful there was still a feeling there was eye rolling going on at Disney.
Essentially, I felt mildly dissatisfied while watching and figured out later it was mainly because of the messaging. The film has a classic Disney look, which is not what I want from a Pixar movie, and a classic dis of the mother, which is what I expect from Disney. The film is too straightforward, with no sneaky, clever jokes for the parents which is probably why I found the humor flat. If you don’t mind watching a strictly kid focused movie that is way more Disney than Pixar, and with unfortunate messaging, show it to your kids. Personally, I wouldn’t without a long lecture from me up front, but YMMV.
CFR: In Addition: I knew I didn’t want to see this movie. Thanks, Mildred, for pointing it out.