There’s something about Disney/Pixar's latest feature, “Onward,” that left a sour taste in my mouth. It wasn’t the fact that the film is overlong; features with climatic, overblown action sequences have regrettably become de rigueur. It wasn’t that the script by Jason Headley, Keith Bunin and director Dan Scanlon isn’t all that original; I’ve gotten used to pastiches such as this that borrow from numerous sources and attempt to pass off well-worn ideas as innovative.
No, it was the conclusion of the film that really got under my craw, an ending that fails to reward the movie’s protagonist, as well as the audience, with a just resolution for all he’s endured. Instead of experiencing a sense of poignancy, which is what Scanlon was clearly aiming for, I left with feelings of disappointment and a bit of anger after having been so ill used, having suffered through a climax that seems like a cheat, one not properly earned or narratively sound.
The film gets off to a reasonable start, as these things go. The world is a rather dreary place where trolls, goblins and fairies cavort, pale shadows of their former selves. Seems they all got too dependent on technology, and as a result, all the magic in the world disappeared. However, Barley (voiced by Chris Pratt), a gregarious, slacker elf, contends that the role-playing game he’s enamored with, Legends of Yore, is a sort of historical document, an accurate recreation of how things used to be, when magic was the norm.
While he loses himself in this game daily, his younger brother, Ian (Tom Holland), has both feet planted in the real world. Shy and withdrawn, he’s the opposite of his not-a-care-in-the-world brother, a boy who regrets never knowing their deceased father. However, a bit of magic does still exist in the form of a birthday present Ian gets that will allow him to spend 24 hours with his dear departed dad. Unfortunately, the spell goes awry, and only the bottom half of their father is revived. Yet Barley knows how to make things right, and he convinces his brother to go on an epic quest to find the magical Phoenix Gem, which will render their dad whole and give the trio a bit of time together.
The road trip the brothers set out on lacks inspiration, and any urgency it contains is the result of artificial, tired conflicts that succeed in dragging the film down rather than allowing it to soar. The van runs out of gas, the brothers run afoul of a biker gang of bitter fairies, a needless subplot that finds their mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and a former monster (Octavia Spencer) on their trail are just a few of the difficulties the brothers and audience have to contend with. None of it feels fresh; it’s just so much unnecessary noise that simply functions to delay the inevitable.
Ironically, what occurs in Onward’s third act is far from predictable, as Scanlon throws us a curveball that defies logic and confirms all the negative traits Barley has been accused of having are true. His behavior at the end is selfish, and the cruel fate Scanlon assigns to Ian is without sense or merit. While two of the themes the film deals with are coming of age and brotherly love, what occurs undercuts this premise in such a savage way that I was stunned by how heartless Scanlon’s approach ultimately was.
I’m sure this comes off as curmudgeonly, but no matter. Ultimately, Onward’s message is that the world is not fair, hard work will not be rewarded and slackers will always come out on top. There’s very little magic to be found here, only a confirmation of how the real world works.