June 19, 2020

Pixar’s latest film Onward was released to streaming almost immediately, when its theatrical release was cut short by covid-19 shutdowns. There’s a lot for genre folks to like in this story of two brothers processing grief over their father’s passing, before the younger Ian was born. Elder brother Barley is a classic heavy-metal gaming nerd, complete with a van with airbrushed fantasy art on the side. Ian is shy and awkward and longs for a connection to the father he never knew. The twist here is that they are themselves part of a fantasy world, with elves and centaurs and pixies and so on. But it’s one where magic has been pushed out by technology – technology is easier than magic, so now the elf brothers live in a suburb and the centaur is a cop who’d rather drive and pixies don’t fly, etcetera and so on. On Ian’s sixteenth birthday, they inherit a magical staff from their dead father and a spell that promises to bring him back for one day so they can meet him. And also bring magic back to their world. The film is their quest to make the spell go right.

It’s a sweet story, albeit a bit rote. “Magic has left the world” is an old, old trope in written science fiction and fantasy. I think we’re meant to be startled and amused by the juxtaposition of fantasy and modernity – the adventuring tavern run by a manticore is now a kiddie birthday pizza joint. But even that’s an old familiar trope. (I most recently encountered it  in Patricia McKillip’s wonderful novel Kingfisher, which gives us an Arthurian retelling in which the knights use cell phones and hop in their cars to head out on their quests.)

There is a gelatinous cube joke, the film giving itself D&D cred. Then, there’s a second gelatinous cube joke, in which the concept of the gelatinous cube is explained to those in the audience who don’t know what one is. Barley explaining to Ian, actually. Barley is the gamer, Ian is not, which means Barley can explain gaming and magic tropes to Ian – and the audience – throughout the film. It’s a little obvious. At that point, I know we’re going to encounter a gelatinous cube – rule of threes, there. And we do. That’s what I mean by rote. It’s okay. But I’m kind of glad I didn’t go to the effort of seeing this in the theater.

Dead dad instead of dead mom, so I guess that’s a switch, and their mom is really pretty awesome, so there’s that.


3 Responses to “Onward”

  1. Jared Moloshok Says:

    This was the last movie my girlfriend and I went to see in theaters before the lockdown began. We both enjoyed it anyway, but the fact that we’ve hardly been out since then makes me think of the movie more fondly than it probably deserves. 🙂

  2. carriev Says:

    My last was “Emma.” I’m thinking now I’ll always cry when I see it again, because of that.

    I think this also illustrates the difference between going to theaters and not. When I watch movies at home, it’s so easy to get distracted and not pay attention. I probably would have liked Onward better in a theater.

  3. Jared Moloshok Says:

    I think this also illustrates the difference between going to theaters and not. When I watch movies at home, it’s so easy to get distracted and not pay attention.

    I definitely have the same problem. Plus, even the most epic, pulse-pounding moments in a movie have a tendency to have less of an impact on smaller screens. (This is partly why I’ve tried to see each of the Monsterverse movies on an IMAX screen at least once for each of their theatrical runs.)

    Unfortunately, even with the theaters reopening, it’ll probably be several months at least before I feel safe enough to return to them.

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