August 2023
Alan Dean Foster

Onward … and Downward

By and large, I love the films Pixar has made. Starting with the groundbreaking It’s a Bug’s Life and Toy Story, following through with Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, onward with Monsters Inc., Wall-E and the best film about cooking I’ve ever seen, Ratatouille, Pixar has advanced the art of animation beyond anything Unca Walt could have imagined. Not only do these films advance animation, they’re great films, period.

But ever since the grand and heart-rending Coco, something has gone wrong.

Onward, Soul, Luca, Turning Red, Lightyear: while reviews varied, none of these films struck a  chord with the filmgoing audience. The animation itself is beautiful as usual, so we’ll have to look elsewhere for the problem. One complaint is that films which premiere first on Disney+ have no chance to build buzz among movie fans, and so an audience that is becoming conditioned to seeing Pixar films at home waits for them to show up on their television. I think that’s certainly a contributory factor — but not a defining one. So, what else do the aforementioned films have in common?

They’re all about people.

A long time ago, someone very knowledgeable about animation said, “If you can do the story as live-action, there’s no reason to do it as animation.” And if you’re going to focus on humans, you’d better have a healthy component of important nonhuman characters. With the exception of Snow White, this is true of even ground-breaking early Disney animated films. Pinocchio had Jiminy Cricket. Bambi (except offstage) and Fantasia had no humans at all. Above all other forms of filmmaking, animation allows us to imagine the lives of nonhuman creatures and objects.

And yet, the re-invigorated Disney animation division does well with films that feature mostly humans. Think Encanto and Moana. But such subjects are not, and never have been, Pixar’s strong point. I exclude the wonderful The Incredibles because the main characters are rife with nonhuman characteristics (also: Brad Bird).

The Incredibles aside, look back at that list of great Pixar films. All feature and focus on nonhuman characters. Think again of Bambi (which story Disney is now preparing to do as a live-action remake, à la The Lion King).

I think the trouble really started with Onward.

I love fantasy. I love heroic fantasy. I even love parodies of heroic fantasy. But while the main characters of Onward are elvish, pointy ears aside they are still very much human, living in a human world.

In Onward, technology has replaced magic, the latter having largely faded away. Pointy-eared people live in familiar houses, drive cars, cook on stoves, etc. Our teenage hero pines for his father, who passed away long ago. Then he comes into possession of a magic staff powered by a mysterious crystal (it’s always a crystal), which he and his goofy and actually unpleasant jock brother intend to use to bring back their demised sire for one last visit. But the magic goes awry and only the lower half of dad is restored.

I’m sure this plot point was a killer in story sessions, but once we’ve seen half-a-dad stumble blindly into objects (I found this more pitiable than funny), that’s it. The one-joke gag is over. For the remainder of the adventure, it’s a pair of pants running around with the boys. I think subconsciously this eventually occurred to the writers, because deep into the film our hero equips the pants with an upper half fashioned of fabric, so we at least have a puppet body with fake eyes with which to make some kind of contact.

After the incantation, despite frantic directorial efforts, nothing much happens. The film constantly undermines its own story. Searching for a map that will lead to a second crystal, the boys find it on the wall of a restaurant run by a manticore. An actual fantasy creature, manticore (she has no name, apparently, so I’m going to anoint her “Millie”) runs a restaurant because she’s adapted to the modernized world of the story. In the throes of a throwback to her original ferocious self, she burns down her own restaurant: the only really gripping scene in the entire film. The sole reason for this unaccountable sequence is to burn up the map. But not to worry. The map has been used as the basis for one of those kids’ handout crayon mazes you see in family restaurants. Which renders the search for the actual map kinda pointless. But hey.

There is a confrontation with a bunch of biker pixies who have lost the ability to fly (might’ve encountered that in a book elsewhere, cough). As the pixies, who for some reason ride full-size bikes (how? Don’t ask.) attack the brothers, our hero’s fear of driving comes into play on a frenetically busy freeway. On the side of the van he is driving is a beautiful painted Pegasus.

Now we’ll see some action! The painted Pegasus will spread its white wings and carry the fan and our boys to safety! A magnificent sequence that …

Never happens. The painting is just — a painting.

At the beginning the film introduces the boys’ peripatetic pet dragon. Dragon has some cool sight gags. Disappears for the rest of the picture. The usual follows. Spike pit. Arrows shooting from walls. Green carnivorous gelatin monster (hello, Futurama). All this only to find out that the second crystal is right back where they started, in their home town.

Story cheat.

So they take the crystal, whereupon tentacles of ominous red smoke begin to ooze out from the base of the monument where the crystal has been concealed, wreaking havoc. An actual interesting threat. Except it’s not the threat. It exists only to tear buildings apart and assemble the debris into a kind of stone — dragon. Yes, yet another dragon. Not even a particularly intimidating one. Not even the boys’ pet dragon, which would have been an interesting plot twist. The red smoke tentacles? Those were actually threatening. But hey, we have to have a threatening dragon, don’t we?

Millie Manticore helps out, mom saves the day, and the older brother gets to spend a brief bit of time with resurrected dad. Not our hero, the jerk older brother. As for mom, who might have an interest in seeing her dead husband, she isn’t even referenced. And we don’t actually see dad. The scene is supposed to be oh-so poignant, but it’s just another cheat on the audience.

Did I mention that our hero looks like a Smurf? And nothing at all like his brother? And the centaur police officer who wears a shirt but, unsettlingly, no pants (hi, Donald) and casually destroys stuff as he walks around our protagonists’ home (no, this isn’t funny). Many things are way off with Onward, and you can’t fool audiences anymore.

Give me talking fish any day.

Prescott resident Alan Dean Foster is the author of 130 books. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster. com.