‘Onward’ made me very uncomfortable

Image courtesy Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

5/10 Every movie, to one degree or another, mirrors the world it releases into – that’s the whole concept behind this blog. Some, like Ad Astra, are such clear and urgent cries about the anxieties of their time the subtext is inescapable, and others, like The Hunt, are ripped in bad faith from the headlines.

In others, like Onward, the whole movie is so bland that the subtext is all you notice.

Long ago, on an alternate Earth with two moons populated by mythical creatures, the world was filled with magic. Not everyone could wield it, but those who could were respected and sought after. With the discovery of electricity, ends that before could only be achieved through sorcery became commonplace through technology, and the magic was lost.

In the present, dorky high school elf Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) celebrates his 16th birthday. Now a legal adult, his mother gives him and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) a gift from their father, who died before Ian was born: a spell that can bring him back to meet them grown, if only once and only for a day. Despite being a fantasy enthusiast – or a history enthusiast, in this context – Barley does not have the gift and cannot perform the spell. Ian can, but he botches it, only bringing back their father’s legs but fully consuming the phoenix stone, the rare reagent that powers the spell. Ian and Barley set off on a quest to find another phoenix stone and complete the spell before the sun next sets and their father is lost forever.

They embark in Barley’s heavily modified and possibly copyright-infringing van, Guinevere. Barley has modified essentially everything about this van, including the gear shift, on which he has replaced “D” for “drive” with “O” for “onward.”

Onward is, it’s a movie. For a Pixar studio that’s spent the past several years on sequels or entries like Inside Out that were so on-brand they may as well have been sequels, Onward at least feels fresh, but it’s certainly nothing new. Ian and Barley learn about confidence and overconfidence and all that shit. The absence of their father figure hangs over the movie the same way it hangs over every movie, since every hero has dead parents this century. It’s adopted some of the terminology of Dungeons and Dragons, which is a nice nod, but there’s none of the logistical concerns or everyday worldbuilding that appeals to actual players of those games.

As the film goes through the motions, my mind wanders.

Barley is essentially me. I am also a lonely, overconfident romantic and idealist – I’m more about the future and Barley more about his world’s past, but the core humanism is the same. More specifically, I also have a skinny git little brother figure who explicitly sees me as more of a father figure, so that’s awkward.

Am I being too sensitive? That feels like a very narrow relationship to have in common. It makes sense for me to be a little self-centered right now. 2020’s been a real beatdown so far. I’ve had deaths, emotionally draining road trips, confrontations about my own father, some pigfuck just skimmed my debit card and spent all my money on $80 Lyft rides. It’s a lot of transitions and a lot of waiting on other transitions. Is this just the new, overly introspective Knopp? Gross.

If Onward is a mirror and in Barley I see my own reflection, then the world around him must be a reflection as well. This background is deeply troubling.

Onward is a staunchly conservative movie in ways that are not innocent. Barley wants to make The Realm great again, yearning for a romanticized past of danger and valor and particularly of magic. Technology, an explicitly democratizing force within the film, is portrayed as ineffective and tragic because it has discouraged creatures from using their natural abilities. The plot is dotted with technological failures, mostly related to that van, but working vehicles are also a problem. Barley laments the centaur who can’t run because he drives now and the pixies who can no longer fly except on their motorcycles.

Like the serfs who stumped for billionaire Mike Bloomberg in his attempt to buy the next presidential election, Barley cheers Ian on for a power he could never possess. How awful must The Realm’s rosy past have been for creatures who, like Barley, cannot wield magic? The technology Onward so resents explicitly brought light and heat and swift travel to the masses. There’s probably no electric contraption that could bring Barley’s father back from the dead, but surely the world he’s grown up in is better than the one he fantasizes about.

Just before curtain, I pop out to the lobby and ask for a medium bag of coronavirus, getting a chuckle from the cashier. Onward is the first movie to release firmly into the grip of this epidemic, and it’s noticeable in the mostly empty theater. Fears related to the disease are generally thought to have contributed to the film’s disappointing $40 million opening, though other movies performed to expectation on the same weekend, so there are probably other factors at work.

The real news was that No Time to Die, the 25th 007 film which had already cancelled its Chinese premiere, pushing from an April 2 international release all the way back to Nov. 12. Chinese viewers are critical to the internationally oriented Bond franchise, and Chinese theaters are completely closed right now. Perhaps more importantly, Italy, a prominent location in three of the previous four Daniel Craig-starring entries, has been the second hardest-hit country, with theaters trying to get by enforcing a three-seat buffer between viewers. Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer is estimated to be eating $30-$50 million to do this. All eyes are now on Mulan, Onward’s cousin at Disney, which is about a mythologized Chinese history and filled with Chinese moviestars, which will release in the U.S. on March 27 but has had its Chinese release delayed indefinitely.

These are the dangerous days, the endgame of the Trump administration’s war on truth. With American and Chinese health officials muzzled, their federal governments saying two things, local governments giving their own ground-level reports and the World Health Organization contradicting them all at every turn, even I’m not sure what’s real about coronavirus anymore, what’s genuine precaution and what’s panic. The president himself is right where you’d expect him to be – in open and brazen denial of the problem.

As things somehow continue to get worse, I find myself wondering – is Trump really that much more corrupt than Nixon? Is his tax scam and deliberate refusal to respond to a deadly pandemic that much more evil than Reagan’s? Is he really that much less articulate than Bush? The answer is yes on most counts, but none of this is unprecedented. These are all deficiencies that America has decided, to one degree or another, are acceptable.

None of this is remotely new. This isn’t really a transition, not for the country, not for Pixar and not for me. It’s just people moving onward.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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