Onward and all the images you see in this review are owned by Pixar and Walt Disney Studio Motion PIctures
Directed by Dan Scanlon
It’s no secret that I’ve been pretty down on Pixar this past decade. On the one hand, we DID get Coco and I guess Inside Out was just fine, but this was also the decade that brought us redundant sequels that I just failed to connect with; particularly Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4 which everyone else seemed to enjoy a heck of a lot more than I did. Because of this and the somewhat underwhelming trailers we got (It’s fantasy AND modern AT THE SAME TIME!?), I’m not exactly looking forward to seeing this kid friendly version of Bright, but that’s just the pessimistic side of me talking and maybe this really will be another return to form for the venerable studio. Is this a road trip for the ages and the sequel to Brütal Legend we’ve all been secretly hoping for, or is this a mythical folly more disastrous than that Warcraft movie you’ve already forgotten about? Let’s find out!!
Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) is your typical Elf teenager; aspiring to be Legolas but more like The Elf on a Shelf. He’s gangly, really quiet, and to some people he might come off as a bit creepy considering his lack of social skills. VERY different from his brother Barley (Chris Pratt) who is basically the unholy offspring (in the cool Rock N Roll sort of way) of Andy Dwyer and Jack Black; spending most of his times talking theatrically, creating cool-tastic stories for his knock off D&D campaigns, and decidedly not getting a job or moving out. Some of his arrested development issues as well as Ian’s social anxieties can be traced back to their father who died of an illness right before Ian was born, and there’s a lot of unhandled baggage there despite the efforts of their mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus ) to make a happy home and the stern if bumbling guidance of their mom’s new boyfriend Officer Bronco (Mel Rodriguez). On Ian’s sixteenth birthday however, that all changes when their mother gives him a gift from his late father that she was instructed to hold off on until this day, and it turns out that their dad was a wizard who came up with a spell to bring him BACK FROM THE DEAD for one day so that he can see how great his sons turned out. Sure! Just ask the Elric brothers how well this worked out for them! Well it KIND of works out as Ian is only able to bring back the bottom half of their dad and they now need to go on an EPIC QUEST TO FIND A NEW GEM FOR MAGIC STAFF, and cast the REST of the spell before the 24 hours are up. Can Ian and Barley find the mythical Phoenix Gem and see their father one last time? Who exactly WAS their father and how far does Ian want to go with these new magic gifts that he’s discovered? Will Barley put him through the Rocky Training Montage of his life!? He certainly has the right music for it!
With the one exception of Coco, this is easily the best Pixar movie since Toy Story 3 all the way back in 2010. Is it the BEST thing they’ve ever done? Probably not as some of it falls into rather broad and familiar territories, and Pixar is at its best when it’s just like an Ogre and has many layers. That said, even if it’s more like a high end Disney film than an all-time Pixar Classic like Coco, it’s still one of the better animated films I’ve seen in a while and frankly stands tall as one of the better films this year. That’s probably not saying much considering Fantasy Island and The Boy 2: Electric Boogaloo are still clear in our rearview mirror, but it’s something at least!
Despite it’s somewhat convoluted premise which involves a magic crystal and a pair of disembodied legs, the movie at its core is a basic road trip which may not be breaking the mold (even Pixar has dipped into this pool many a time) but is still done pretty well. There are some great character moments throughout with Tom Holland especially having to carry a lot of the emotional weight here through some cleverly throughout and but still rough to emotionally convey scenes. It’s all about getting us to feel that lost piece of the puzzle that a death like this leaves in a family’s life, and the themes manage to hit home if you’ve ever had to go through anything like this. It shares some similarities with Coco in that way but approaches it from a different angle; where Miguel was a normal boy seeking a new and exciting family before realizing how great his own is, Ian is just trying to get a glimpse of what he has missed out on, even if the person in question was exceedingly ordinary. The partial resurrection itself is an interesting idea, but it kinda feels half (nyuk-nyuk-nyuk) baked. The legs definitely have personality to them and there’s at least at least one REALLY great scene that shows just how aware half-dad is of what’s going on despite only having one of his senses to work with, so they do add SOMETHING to the movie. Even with that though, I can’t say that it’s one of the more memorable aspects of the movie and is played up for visual gags more than anything else. Along with that we get some decent humor and a few well done action scenes. Not the best in Pixar’s catalogue by a sizable margin, but still more than enough to carry this movie and leave things feeling much lighter and accessible than its heavy themes would indicate.
In all honestly though, the biggest and most pleasant surprise for me was Barley who I pegged in the trailers as a genuine screw-up and immature brat, but he actually ends up being the heart of the movie. Sure he’s still a bit of a manchild and more than once he’s completely oblivious to the way he talks and acts, but what works about him is that he’s genuinely encouraging and selfless throughout the journey. You’d think that there’d be some sort of rift between him and his brother because Ian is the one who has the innate magical ability, something that Barely has always been interested in while Ian just wants to be normal, but no! Jealousy never once enters the equation and he’s so happy for Ian that he can barely contain himself! It’s refreshing to se such a flawed person also be so unconditionally good as well; that someone who messes up as much as he does or has that much trouble acting his age isn’t a bad person because of it. I strongly suspect that I’m not the only one who sees a part of themselves in him, and in fact I’m sure a lot of those same people see a lot of themselves in Ian as well. They’re solidly written characters that do a great job of embodying this generation of aging man children, but without the scorn and mockery that often comes with examining them; and I’m glad a movie about characters growing up is less about how they can become more productive members of Capitalism than about self-care and emotional healing.
Where the movie ends up stumbling is on the finer details of its world which is doubly disappointing considering just how good Pixar usually is with that. Compared to the retro aesthetics of Up, Monsters Inc, and The Incredible, or the fully realized environments of Toy Story and Finding Nemo, this feels rather basic with the fantasy elements feeling rather basic and surface level. Trolls, elves, pixies, all are present and accounted for but without much depth to their presence or understanding of their place in the world; like they made a straightforward high school road trip movie but everyone is wearing Halloween masks. It’s certainly better than the confused mess that was Bright, but it feels a bit underwhelming compared to something like Stephen Universe or Adventure Time. On top of that, the B-Story with their mom and the Manticore just didn’t have a lot of legs to it. There’s a funny scene at a pawn shop that’s definitely the highlight of their adventure, but other than that it’s a distraction that doesn’t have much of a point beyond getting a MacGuffin to the third act. Speaking of the third act, there’s a twist that I KIND of like but the execution feels off and ended up sapping my enthusiasm. I don’t know, maybe I’m too jaded to enjoy a kids movie like this, but the fact that we have an ALL IS LOST moment here feels like it stops the movie dead right when we should be bringing it to a crescendo. Perhaps if they had done that right BEFORE the twist it would have worked a bit better, but I think that’s more of a personal issue with me where the somewhat lackluster world building is what’ll stand out for more people.
I criticize Pixar because I love them, and seeing some of their output in recent years has been a bit disheartening for me, but with Coco and now this movie, they might be back on track soon enough and will hopefully go back to focusing on original properties instead of endless sequels with diminishing returns. Considering how many great animated films have come out while Pixar has been sitting pretty on its mountain of prestige I’d be hard pressed to call this movie a MASTERPIECE and I’m pretty confident that we’ll get even better ones before the end of this year, but for what it’s worth this is a really great time at the theater; especially if you’re looking for something the whole family can enjoy. I mean I’m sure SOME families will all enjoy The Invisible Man, but I’m guessing that this is the far safer bet…