The fantasy genre is quite the paradox. On one hand, fantasy, by its very definition, focuses on subject matter that supersedes our tangible reality. It's a genre that inspires creativity, with the only limitation being one's own imagination. On the other hand, if most contemporary examples of the genre are any indicator, then most people's imaginations are limited to the works of Tolkien.
Most fantasy stories, rather than push the boundaries of creativity, instead confine their creativity to a mass-produced cookie-cutter model. Most plots follow the hero's journey, most characters are archetypes, most settings are based on medieval Europe, and most creatures are ripped from the pages of a D&D instruction manual.
If you've read Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, then you've experienced most of what contemporary fantasy has to offer, which is mostly deviations of those stories. Otherwise, unless you're actively seeking authors who aren't basic straight white guys, it's rare to find fantasy stories that deviate greatly from the mainstream cookie-cutter formula and delve into creative new territory.
Thus we come to Onward, a movie that exemplifies the paradox of the fantasy genre. On the one hand, the movie takes place within a fantastical setting that offers countless possibilities for potentially new and creative stories. On the other hand, the story itself follows a standard by-the-book adventure plot. The only real difference is that the setting is "what if fantasy setting, but in modern times?" and the "adventure" takes the form of a buddy road trip.
The movie itself has not done well for itself. Onward was unfortunately released during the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, which forced many theaters to shut down. These unfortunate circumstances forced the movie to suffer the worst box office for a Pixar film since The Good Dinosaur and inevitably led to it being released early on Disney Plus.
On top of all that, Onward also experienced a PR nightmare when one of its minor characters was revealed to be gay. While Disney certainly had its heart in the right place by attempting to include much-needed LGBTQ representation, the fact that the character in question played a fairly minor role with only a few lines of dialogue sparked a backlash, lambasting the film of engaging in "rainbow capitalism" and "performative wokeness." (Oh, and homophobes went and did a homophobia, as can be expected!)
But in spite of its poor box office numbers and its flaccid attempts to appear "woke", is the movie any good? Does this movie dare to venture "onward" and actually "brave" new territory for the fantasy genre, or will it suffer the same fate as Brave and fade into the wisps of the forgotten?
To move onward to see my opinion on Onward, click READ MORE:
Onward takes place in a fantasy setting filled with creatures like elves, fairies, and centaurs. Once upon a time, magic was commonplace until scientific and technological advancements modernized the world and rendered the need for magic obsolete. Now the world is like our own, only inhabited by magical creatures that have since become accustomed to living without magic.
The story follows two elf brothers: Ian, a shy recluse with confidence issues, and Barley, the “screw-up” older brother with a high affinity for “the old days” of quests and magic. On his 16th birthday, Ian receive a gift from his late father, who passed away before he was born and before Barley could form any concreate memories of him. Turns out their father was a wizard who created a magic spell that would allow him to come back to life for one full day.
The brothers attempt the magic spell, but it unfortunately backfires, causing only their father’s lower half to manifest. Now the two must venture on an “epic” road trip to find another magical relic to complete the spell within 24 hours. Will the two brothers finish the spell in time and see their father one last time? And what will they discover about themselves on their journey?
|Pirates And Princess|
There’s a reason I went on my mini-spiel about the fantasy genre earlier. Onward exemplifies the genre’s paradox. The movie have a very creative premise (“our modern world, but with fantasy creatures”), yet it doesn’t really do anything really imaginative with that premise. It’s essentially our world but with fantasy creatures and nothing else. It’s inhabited by creatures of different shapes and sizes, but nothing about the setting is designed to accommodate these different creatures.
For example, if I were to tell you there was a chase scene with fairy bikers, you’d probably imagine small fairies riding small fairy-sized motorcycles. But no! Instead, we have several fairies working together to operate large regular-sized motorcycles. It’s a funny gag, to be sure, but one that doesn’t make sense in the context of this world. Why would such a world with creatures of different shapes and sizes only have vehicles that accommodate moderately-sized creatures?
In contrast, consider Zootopia. Think of the establishing scene of the city where Judy is riding the train through the various boroughs. Notice how each district was designed to accommodate the specific needs of animals from different climates, from the humid desert to the frigid tundra, allowing these animals to comfortably co-exist alongside one another. The movie simply didn’t create our world with animals: it created a world specifically for animals. Onward, on the other hand, copies-and-pastes our world and inserts magical creatures into it without considering the implications.
|Travel By Pixie Dust|
Speaking of magical creatures, let’s talk about their designs. Simply put, they suck. Every character looks the same as every other. If you’ve seen one elf or fairy or centaur or cyclops, then you’ve seen them all. The end result is a setting filled with cookie-cutter-designed creatures that all look the same, to the point where they almost blend into one another in a multicolored mess.
In contrast, consider Monsters Inc. and Monsters University. Not one monster looks alike. Everyone is different with unique and creative designs. Even monsters that are supposed to look similar have some level of distinction among them. How easy would it have been for Pixar to create the exact same character model for the background characters and simply duplicate them? Monsters Inc. doesn’t do that, but Onward does, and the fact that the same company made both movies is frankly disappointing.
As for the story, like I said in the intro: it’s your typical “coming-of-age” road trip movie. If you’ve seen one road trip, then you know what to expect from this one. There’s a scene where the car runs out of gas and the characters have to trek to the closest station to fetch gas. They run into angry bikers, accidently tip over their motorcycles domino style, and flee in a comical chase scene. And they get pulled over by the cops. But hey! At least one of the cop characters is confirmed gay, so progressive?
None of this is to say Onward is a bad movie. It’s not—or at least it isn’t a “not good” movie! In spite of its half-conceived world, lazy character designs, and stereotypical plot, the movie is, at the very least, serviceable. Yes, the movie is fairly predictable. No spoilers, but we know for a fact that the characters will inevitably succeed in their quest and see their father. With stories like this, it’s okay to be formulaic. Because like with many good adventures, it’s not about the destination, but the journey. We know what to expect at the destination, we simply want to see how we get there.
With all that said, what do I like about the movie?
I love how tightly-written the story is. There are no superfluous moments. Nothing happens for no reason. Moments that may seem small and insignificant set up something much bigger later on. The movie essentially sets up a series of Chekov's Guns that go off when you least expect them.
For example, at the very start of the movie, there are several shots that fixate upon the dragon mascot painted on the side of the school. No spoilers, but that dragon plays a big role at the movie's climax. Also, there's a running gag where each of the two brothers gets a splinter from the staff. Again, no spoilers, but no joking: one of those splinters also plays a large role near the movie's end.
But what really makes this movie is the relationship between the two brothers. Obviously, as it is with most siblings, the two don't get along very well, but their relationship isn't dysfunctional. Neither of them hate each other, and they otherwise get along well. Of course, there's a moment near the end where they have a falling out, but--no spoilers--they eventually reconcile their differences and realize the real journey was the brotherly bond they made along the way.
The dynamic between the two is really refreshing to see. They might bicker and argue--again, as can be expected from siblings--but they do eventually get through the movie by learning to rely on each other's strengths: Ian with his newfound magic powers, and Barley with his knowledge of magic and questing. As easy as it would have been for Barley to become bitter at his brother for developing magical powers when he's the one with the knowledge and interest in magic, instead, Barley is excited for his brother and enthusiastic to help him with his new powers.
As I mentioned before, Onward suffers from the same problem as most other “fantasy” stories: they all have the potential to experiment with creative premises, but inevitably don’t do anything with those premises other than the same old, same old. It has an interesting setting, but doesn’t do much with it, it’s story is your atypical road trip movie with the usual beats, and the art design falters in comparison to Pixar’s other films. Even then, for what it’s worth, the movie still offers an enjoyable experience with plenty of twists and turns, and while the destination may be easy to predict, what counts most is the journey along the way. The end result is a so-so movie with plenty of good moments, but not enough to make it great.
Personally, I wanted to love this movie. I’m a huge fan of fantasy, and the premise of fantasy creatures living in a modern setting seems intriguing. Also, as someone whose own father passed away two years ago, I wanted this movie to resonate with me personally. Though I didn’t get what I hoped for, the movie was still pleasantly serviceable.
Would I watch the movie again? No. Did I want this movie to do better? Yes. Would I want to see its characters and settings expanded upon? Heck yes! This movie deserves a sequel, or better yet, an animated series like with Tangled or Big Hero 6. There’s so much potential for building its world and characters. It’s simply too bad that this movie, despite being about meeting your potential, didn’t quite make it.
Random Thoughts (Spoilers!)
- In the Onward universe, the light bulb was invented by a woman. Somewhere, on YouTube, there's a bearded man child screaming about how this is reverse-sexism.
- This movie features cop characters, one of whom is dating the mom of the two protagonists. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn't be worth noting. Nowadays, however, even one cop character's enough to get a movie labeled "copaganda" by online idiots.
- "Burger Shire: Now serving second breakfast."
- Apparently, the first high school road test is on the freeway. I don't blame Ian for feeling intimidated. I'm a 33 year old man who had his license for ten years, and I'm intimidated to drive on the freeway.
- A troll is taking a toll at the bridge. Obvious joke is obvious.
- I love the Manticore! And I love her chemistry with the mom. Do I ship them? No. But would I love to see a Disney Plus series starring them? Yes. A million times yes! It would be a better idea than a series based on the cameo prince from Aladdin or Gaston and LeFou from BATB. (Seriously, Disney! WTF?!)
- Forget Chekov's Gun! This movie is Chekhov's Armoury! To name but a few guns:
- The "Go Dragons" mascot. The mascot is painted on the side of the school. Near the end, during the climatic fight scene, it turns into an actual concrete dragon. Chekhov's dragon!
- The ancient well. Barley protests the demolition of an old well outside their school. The well contains the other Phoenix gem.
- Splinter. Barley gets a splinter in his finger. That splinter is later grown into a full staff to use with the other Phoenix gem.
- Gelatinous Cube. Barley talks about how one of his games involved a gelatinous cube. Later, they actually encounter one.
- Also, gelatinous cubes are actual monsters in Dungeons and Dragons.
- Major Spoiler: Turns out everything Ian wanted to do with his father he did with his brother. I have no comment. That's legit heart-warming!