“Onward”: The Brotherhood of the Traveling Pants

Onward!

Are they elves? Goblins? Bugbears? Kobolds? Smurfs? I have no idea.

From the studio that brought you Up and Inside Out, it’s Onward, another in-depth exploration of a directional adverb. Expect more in this series in future adventures such as Diagonal, Hard to Starboard, Thereabouts, and Counterclockwise!

(The word actually appears in-story and makes perfect sense after you’ve seen the movie. As an enticement for luring reticent viewers into the theater, it falls…shortward.)

Short version for the unfamiliar: In a world where the humanoid races of Dungeons & Dragons existed beyond medieval times and crossbred until normal humans apparently went extinct instead, magic likewise no longer exists because scientific ingenuity made it obsolete and everyone stopped practicing it. In this world different from and similar to our own, Chris Pratt and Tom Holland are Barley and Ian, blue-skinned teenage brothers raised by single mom Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Their dad died before Ian was born, but Barley has a few memories of him from way back when. Barley has grown up into a confident but oafish college dropout who super-loves fantasy RPGs, which in this monster-filled alt-history are technically more factual, like their timeline’s version of Axis & Allies. Ian has just turned 16 and is a scrawny bundle of awkwardness and fears. So the two actors are basically playing Marvel Team-Up starring Spider-Man and Star-Lord, pre-costume versions.

On Ian’s 16th birthday, Mom brings down a bundle from the attic that dearly departed Dad had labeled “DO NOT OPEN TILL BOTH BOYS ARE 16” and everyone agreed not to peek ever since. The cloths are unwrapped to reveal a wizard’s staff, a magic gem to power it, and the promise of a very special spell. In Barley’s hands, the treasure items do nothing. In Ian’s hands, powerful sorcery ensues…but shuts down prematurely. The net result: a spell that will bring back their dad for 24 hours only…except they only brought back his lower half. Thanks to magic his legs and groin are alive and mobile and thankfully not bleeding all over the place. As family reunions go, the dynamic is lacking.

Barley has an idea how to obtain the necessary component to call do-over on the spell, and of course it involves going on a quest for an item of yore, just like in his favorite game The Quests of Yore. The brothers and Dad’s living legs hop in Barley’s van, whose accessories of course include a flying unicorn painted on the side and a mixtape filled on both sides with imitation ’70s RAWK. Can they retrieve Dad’s upper half from the Great Beyond before the 24 hours expire? Can they strengthen their flimsy filial bond on their road trip? Will the former star of Veep and Seinfeld get to do anything besides act the Concerned Mom?

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: The most helpful creature Our Heroes meet along their path is Academy Award Winner and geek-film staple Octavia Spencer (The Help, Fruitvale Station, Snowpiercer, The Shape of Water, more more more more more) as an irritable manticore who’s lost her way, but helps them find theirs. Old-school Fox Network star Tracey Ullman has one scene as a pawnshop owner. The mandatory John Ratzenberger cameo takes the form of an annoyed construction worker.

There’s also one (1) scene that’s made headline news in which the brothers are pulled over by a pair of cops played by Ali Wong (Always Be My Maybe, Birds of Prey) and Lena Waithe (Master of None, Ready Player One). The latter has one (1) line of dialogue that reveals she’s a lesbian. Rewriting and overdubbing the line for the sake of getting the film into even more conservative overseas markets would be a cinch, and in fact has already happened in at least one country while it’s been banned from numerous others.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Morals of the story include but aren’t limited to:

  • A quest can be an emotional bonding experience, a test of manhood, a vehicle for improving self-esteem, and/or super awesome fun
  • Growing up fatherless can affect a kid’s upbringing; how they feel about their missing dad in hindsight will vary from kid to kid
  • For lack of their real father, kids will look elsewhere for father figures; sometimes that can work out and be a good thing (not always, but it can)
  • Dad or no dad, if you screw up, your single mom will hunt you down
  • Magic or no magic, we all have our talents
  • Flaws and forgiveness are key part of being a family
  • Never give up! Never surrender!
  • Some folks who were more or less born angry can learn to find a middle ground between “beastly primal nature” and “repressed sellout”

Nitpicking? A present-day reality swathed in fantasy tropes is hardly a new concept. Apart from the demotion of unicorns to the status of lowly urban street pests, much of this seems overly familiar. Anyone who hasn’t already watched the Shrek movies or Netflix’s Disenchanted — or for that matter any other Matt Groening series — may chuckle heartily at all the storefronts bearing painfully pun-tastic names, which has become kind of a stale vehicle for writing-staff joke-brainstorming sessions. Time was, Pixar fans could count on every film showing off a few mid-blowing things we’d never seen before. That bar couldn’t possibly stay sky-high forever, and it’s been disappointing to accept the current reality in which that’s the case (cf. Toy Story 4, Incredibles 2).

So what’s to like? If you’re here just to listen to Pratt and Holland having good-natured fun, that goal is handily met. Pratt in particular was more entertaining to me here than in his last few blockbusters, and I can see a lot of my younger self in Holland as he tries to “man up” and find the courage to tackle not just their quest, but everyday teenage life. Spencer and Dreyfus work well as a sort of Thelma-and-Louise driving team when they partner up and chase after the boys. Among the rest of the supporting cast, Mel Rodriguez (The Last Man on Earth) stands out as Mom’s boyfriend, a well-meaning centaur cop armed with ancient dad-jokes, initially a small part that kept growing during rewrites.

As congenially overseen by director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University, which similarly posited college dropouts can be heroes), Onward is an affable diversion that younger viewers begging for more fantasy in their diet could easily slide into heavy rotation once it’s on Disney+. It’s another Pixar tale of themed characters putting tragedy behind them and coming to terms with their present, boosted by a crafty final boss (every quest has one!) and maybe a bit of tear-jerking at the end, among the few moments that come closest to surprising the audience and attaining heartfelt “classic Pixar” quality.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the end credits, though we do confirm the distinctive name of the Gelatinous Cube from the world of Dungeons & Dragons (one of my favorite monsters from back in the day) was indeed used with the gracious permission of the game’s current owners, Wizards of the Coast.

Also, apropos of Barley’s mixtapes, the final notes on the soundtrack are the high-strung crooning of an imitation prog-rock choir, probably dressed like leather-bound opera vikings in the sound booth.

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