Directed and Co-Written by Dan Scanlon
Disney-Pixar’s latest animated adventure “Onward” is based on the oft-repeated theme in children’s stories of a land in which magic has been lost. But this isn’t, for example, the loss of wonder and imagination that results in the void-like “nothing” of “The NeverEnding Story.” Neither is it a world visited by outsiders, as in that same example or such classic stories as “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” This is a self-contained world populated by elves, sprites, and centaurs – where magic has simply given way to technology and progress.
It’s a little like a Narnia in which the wardrobe had been a portal to 1980’s American suburbia – for these elves, sprites, and centaurs live in a world filled with cassette tape boomboxes and Chevy-like vans. You could lift the characters and their pet dragons and replace them with humans, cats and dogs, and the backgrounds and animated props would still look OK. But that’s largely the point – to make the circumstances look ordinary so that we might draw parallels.
This is a world in which sprites have lost the ability (or awareness of their ability) to fly because planes were invented and that’s just so much easier. Similarly, there’s no great call for fire-casting spells when electricity has made everything so much simpler and more reliable, even for the uninitiated. Magic is so long forgotten that it’s now little more than an urban legend, or something depicted in a fantasy card game – not entirely unlike “Magic: The Gathering.”
Fortunately for Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), when a mysterious artifact is found, his brother Barley (Chris Pratt) proves to be an expert in the game – which turns out to be a remarkably accurate source of magical lore. So they set off on a quest, in Barley’s very Chevy-esque van, to try and complete a spell to bring back their father – after at first only managing to manifest him from the waist down. Which yields a certain “Weekend at Bernie’s” vibe after they add a padded upper body and head, turning his legs into something akin to an ambulatory scarecrow.
All of which is good, simple fun – with assorted references and shoutouts to other fantasy realms. Plus, it must be mentioned, this is a film that features feral unicorns. Holland and Pratt are excellent in the lead voice performances, although it becomes the umpteenth animated film that makes one wonder if it might have been just as enjoyable with relatively unknown talent – and whether or not the A-list talent generates enough fan traffic to offset their payroll. Especially when accompanied in supporting roles by Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and Octavia Spencer, and with missable cameos by Tracy Ullman, Wilmer Valderrama, and Pixar stalwart John Ratzenberger.
It remains to be seen what kind of appeal such a generic, non-franchise project can generate. And it doesn’t help that it hits multiplexes just as people are avoiding crowded venues and proximate strangers. “Onward” may be destined to be seen by more eyes when it hits the safety of home quarantined screens.
Ben Affleck channels some of his own inner demons in “The Way Back” as he plays an alumnus drafted to coach his old catholic high school basketball team – a team he took to playoffs as a player decades earlier. Affleck’s Jack Cunningham is a high functioning alcoholic – the kind of guy who can go to work with a travel mug full of gin without raising eyebrows, although it seems like a taller order to remain coherent and stable courtside. It’s a very conventional and relatively low key film, without too many surprises, although it does a decent job of not revealing all of its details too quickly as we incrementally discover what has caused him to become so emotionally broken. Affleck is teamed again with director Gavin O’Connor who helmed “The Accountant” and who has mined similar territory previously with such films as “Warrior,” “Pride and Glory,” and the Olympic ice hockey story “Miracle.” And while this film may look like another sports drama, it’s really about Jack’s struggle for personal redemption and sobriety, which makes it more powerful as a personal drama but which might disappoint those hoping for a rising crescendo of athleticism through the third act. It’s interesting that this opens within a week of Affleck’s supporting role in the Anne Hathaway drama “The Last Thing He Wanted” on Netflix, with this film seeming as if it would be equally at home on the smaller screen.