As recently as this past Saturday I told a colleague, I believe the words were, “there’s no way in hell I’m seeing Onward.” Contrary to popular belief, the idea of sitting through a Pixar movie about two brothers trying to magically, temporarily resurrect their dead father so that they can give him a proper goodbye is not super appealing to someone who recently lost a parent and didn’t get that same opportunity.
Then I reconsidered. It’s weird, as time marches on, the constant sadness is sort of replaced with an almost guilt for not feeling quite as sad. It’s almost like the sadness kept the person I miss closer. Like he was still a part of me. And when that, over time, goes away, there’s a part of me that misses it because I miss him. It’s almost like the last thing I had from him has now, also, faded. So I decided to just steer into the skid and feel whatever I was going to feel during Onward. I thought, maybe, feeling these heavy emotions again would make me feel closer to him as I approached what would have been his birthday this Friday.
Well, it turns out all this hemming and hawing was meaningless because I felt pretty much nothing during this movie. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if you can’t make me feel any emotion with a story about a character who just wants to see his dad one more time, then you’ve got a problem. This is a Pixar movie, a company in which I have a long history of crying while watching their product – and I am patient zero when it comes to, “I need to talk to my dad one more time.” I mean, there are certain commercials that make me tear up. Yet, here, nothing. It’s pretty baffling. Anyway…
Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) is a dorky, shy elf who idolizes his father he never really met. His older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), is a loving older brother, but is kind of a screwup and also regrets not saying goodbye to his dying father because he was too afraid.
When Ian turns 16, their mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gives them a gift their father wanted them to have when they were old enough: a magic staff and crystal that will bring their father back to life for one day. Unfortunately, the crystal explodes halfway through the spell, leaving only their dad’s sentient pair of legs and waist. The brothers have until the sun goes down the following day to find a new crystal and complete the spell. So, the two brothers and a sentient pair of legs and waist go on a quest for the new crystal.
Okay, let’s talk about the sentient pair of legs and waist. It’s really a bizarre decision. It’s weird, because when the legs walk around, the waist is at the top of the body – so what happens is, visually, the waist kind of acts like the head. So in reality we’re just watching this walking crotch galloping around. The kids keep referring to it as his legs, but it’s his crotch. This is a movie about two kids resurrecting their dead dad’s crotch and it’s just the WEIRDEST thing.
Now, if this exact movie existed but, instead, say the spell just didn’t work — their dad started to appear but the crystal blew up and they still needed to go on the quest – something tells me that might have worked better. The memory of their father, or just seeing him briefly but not being able to talk to him yet, would have probably been a better emotional focal point than a walking crotch. At one point in this movie I literally tried to get emotional. If I’m watching nothing I can make myself get there. Watching Onward, I couldn’t do it. Every time I felt even a hint of emotion, here comes the walking crotch. And it just looks so absurd that there’s really no way to feel anything but confusion about why this story decision was made. It’s almost as if the filmmakers just thought the idea of a pair of legs were funny, like if it were in a The Far Side panel. But then decided to try to base a whole movie on what should have been at most a single still or a single joke.
There’s a nice part at the end on Onward about how Ian comes to appreciate everything his older brother Barley has done to raise him over the years. This is a legitimately touching moment. But it also serves to remind us that there were emotional story beat to be had without a walking and dancing crotch filling up the movie screen. I went into Onward terrified of the emotions I’d personally feel – so much that I swore I’d never see it. I broke that promise to myself and, instead, felt pretty much nothing. Which is all somehow worse.
‘Onward’ opens in theaters in March 5th. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.