Onward

Cast: (voiced by) Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer

Director: Dan Scanlon

Writers: Dan Scanlon, Keith Bunin, Jason Headley


One of the problems of attaining as high a batting average as Pixar has in the 25 years since Toy Story first captured our imaginations is that when anything falls even a couple of inches short, it inevitably feels like a disappointment. Had this film been made by DreamWorks, I’d have deemed it to be on par for them. Had it been made by Illumination, I’d be hailing it as their single greatest achievement by a mile and a half. For a studio that has previously taken the world by storm with such emotional, profound and visually daring original films as Ratatouille, Up, and WALL-E however, Onward feels light and tame in comparison. This past decade for Pixar, one in which seven of their eleven releases resulted in sequels and prequels, has led to a prevailing sense that the animation giant is losing its creative edge. Of their four most recent original releases, Brave, Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, and Coco, two rank amongst the most moving and breathtaking films in all of American animation while the other two, having suffered turbulent productions, were mixed bags (I trust that I don’t need to clarify which films are which). The fact that Onward is to be the first of two original releases this year (barring global pandemics) would contest the idea that Pixar is losing faith in its original output were it not a film that played things so safely.

Onward certainly doesn’t feel like it’s a compromised version of the movie that Monsters University director Don Scanlon set out to make. There is a clarity to its vision, the world they’ve created is brimming with character and inventiveness, and the story feels wholly personal to those who wrote it. The problem isn’t with the movie’s execution but with its ambition; instead of shooting for the moon, it feels like Scanlon and his team were perfectly content to simply fly in its general direction. It’s a colourful and pleasant film with much to enjoy, but it isn’t much more than that. There’s nothing to match the delight of watching WALL-E and EVE dancing in space, the tragedy of the opening minutes of Up, or the profundity of Joy giving way to Sadness. This movie doesn’t take any bold risks, it doesn’t push the limits of what’s possible in its own reality, nor does it really go all that deep with its characterisation. Onward aspires to be nothing more and nothing less than a fun and pleasing family film and it is by all means a success; whatever flaws it might possess, this is a film that fundamentally works on its own terms. Because it bears the Pixar banner though, its successes cannot help but feel mild.

The story is that of brothers Ian and Barley Lightfoot, two pointy-eared, purple-skinned elves living a suburban life with their mother. Their father died before Ian was born and both boys have been shaped by his absence and what scant few memories they have of the old man. Ian, a shy and awkward teen, has none of the confidence he’s been told his father had in spades and Barley, a burly layabout with an obsession for fantasy and role play, has none of his drive. On the day of his 16th birthday, Ian is gifted with a memento that the Dad had left for his sons before his death: a magical staff with a special crystal and a spell that’ll allow the boys to resurrect him for one day. You see, this is a realm where magic used to be the way of life. It was so difficult to master however that it eventually fell out of use in favour of such modern luxuries as electricity and automobiles. Barley, an avid player of Quests of Yore, this Dungeons & Dragons style game based on their real-life history, knows all about how magic is supposed to work and talks Ian into giving it a try. The spell goes awry however and only half of it is completed before the crystal is shattered. What’s left when all the smoke clears is half of the man that their father used to be (by which I mean his bottom half).

While Pixar films tend to be set in our own world, or at least one that we can more or less recognise as our own, Onward takes its cue from WALL-E and Monsters Inc. by transporting us to a whole other realm. It is effectively our own world in that it’s set in a suburban town and inhabited by people who wear T-shirts and jeans and use mobile phones, but the houses they live in are these domesticated giant mushrooms and the townsfolk include centaurs, manticores and fairies. It’s like Bright, only with some actual imagination put into it and no ill conceived, heavy-handed attempts at an allegory for racism. They similarly stay well clear of Shrek territory by keeping brand and pop-culture references to an absolute minimum and by not playing any songs by Smash Mouth. The movie is comfortable keeping things light and playing around with slapstick, especially where the Dad’s legs are concerned, but the kinds of snarky, self-referential one-liners that typically typify these kinds of comical modern-fantasy kid’s movies are thankfully absent. The movie instead allows its world to simply present itself to the audience on its own terms; a world where elves, goblins and queer cyclopes (of which there is one by virtue of a throwaway line that will be cut for Russian and Chinese screenings)  work mundane jobs, dragons are kept as pets, and wings are no longer used for flying. The world doesn’t feel as vast or as lived in as in previous Pixar titles, but it has its charms.

At times the characterisation of the world can be too broad to make it feel like a real, distinguishable place and the same goes for the characters. Ian and Barley are more archetypes than people, one as the spindly introvert who cannot bring himself to try anything because he’s afraid of his own shadow and the other as the extroverted, well-intentioned doofus who keeps screwing up. There are one or two reversals such as with Barley, who is made out to be a jock but instead turns out to be a hardcore fantasy nerd, and they’re likeable enough to carry the film but there isn’t enough specificity to their personalities for them to come into their own before the third act. When we reach that point and the overall themes of the film really start to take shape, we get a far better idea of who the brothers are supposed to be and what they’re supposed to mean to each other. While the groundwork for the emotional payoff they’re going for is established well enough for the conclusion to feel appropriate, it would have been more satisfying had the focal point been more pronounced throughout. A few too many callbacks have to be made in order to inspire the emotions we should have already been feeling and by the time we really start to get invested the movie has already reached its climax and is getting ready to wrap things up.

Still, for a straightforward fantasy family adventure, Onward delivers. Drawing much of its inspiration from such tabletop role-play games of the 1980s as D&D, the movie often feels like one of those campaigns in all of the right ways. Along their way to find a legendary gem to replace the one that was shattered, Ian and Barley must brave foes, improve their skills, solve puzzles, evade capture, collect items and, most importantly, learn to work together. There’s a lot to role-playing games that appeals to players and keeps them coming back; there’s the thirst for adventure, the feeling of progression, the immersive experience. More than that, it’s the sense of community. It’s about going on a journey with your friends and having a good time along the way. Onward understands this well. There’s a scene in the middle where Daddy Long Legs (sorry not sorry) feels the vibration of the music playing in the car and takes a moment to dance along and tap his sons in to join him. It’s a moment that captures what goofy fun these kinds of games can be if you’re prepared to just go along with whatever happens and not take anything too seriously. In the same way that The LEGO Movie gets a pass with some clichés and flaws because of how it all takes place in an eight-year-old’s imagination, so does Onward for how often it feels like a couple of teenagers playing a role-play board game with each other.

This can however be a fault where stakes are concerned. We get that there’s a personal weight to this adventure, namely that Ian and Barley need to find the crystal and complete the spell before sunset or else they’ll lose their one chance to spend some time with their father. For what is supposed to at least evoke, if not outright be, an epic quest, the pair face few obstacles along the way. Even the big boss they battle at the end feels more like an inconvenience than it does an antagonist. With the exception of one scene that draws a bit from the leap of faith scene in The Last Crusade (there is a lot of Spielberg in this movie), it rarely feels like the characters are ever in any genuine danger. This is more likely a feature than a bug considering that the film is set in suburbia and all the boys are really trying to do is drive their van up a hill in search of treasure, but it still feels like the stakes are lower than they should be. In Inside Out, all Joy wanted to do was get back to headquarters to make Riley happy again, but the journey there was such an urgent and emotional one because we cared so deeply about her and the other characters (Bing Bong, my heart goes out to you). The ending to this film is a sweet one that inspires relief, but not much else. But then, maybe it doesn’t need to. Not every movie can be Inside Out and not every film by Pixar needs to.

★★★★

Dolittle

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, Marion Cotillard

Director: Stephen Gaghan

Writers: Stephen Gaghan, Dan Gregor, Doug Mand


When you consider the vast amount of collaborative work that goes into making a film of any kind and factor in the endless number of things that can possibly go wrong, it really is a wonder that any great films get made at all. Even the most surefire, well-intentioned movies can go completely wrong with just a little bit of bad luck. Whether it’s a director who simply isn’t right for the project, an actor who has committed themselves to a misguided performance, a script that needed more time before its submission, a studio that refuses to concede any ground, an act of God, or any other number of things, some movies are just doomed to fail. Sometimes things go so badly that the studio is left with no choice but to release a movie that isn’t even finished, which is how we get films like Suicide Squad and Fant4stic. We can only guess what went wrong behind the scenes of Dolittle, a film that was originally to be titled The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle as directed by Stephen Gaghan (best known for geopolitical thrillers such as Traffic and Syriana (you know, for kids!)) until it was made to undergo extensive, studio-mandated reshoots. Whether it was pulled apart by conflicting ideas and intentions or if the movie Gaghan made was simply unsalvageable, Dolittle is a colossal trainwreck of epic proportions. It is so incoherent in its entirety, so confused in its intention and so disjointed in its construction that I’m honestly unsure if it can technically be considered a film.

To say that Dolittle has a plot would be charitable; it would be more accurate to describe the ‘film’ as a haphazard montage of outtakes and half-finished scenes cobbled together by a blind chimp. The endless 100-minute runtime consists of Dr. Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.), a surly and eccentric man with a superhuman ability to talk to animals in a Welsh-ish accent, mumbling and twitching his way from one moment to the next while a collage of celebrity-voiced CGI creatures scramble around him spouting one-liners. The only indicator that one scene has ended and another has begun is a change in the setting. Such backdrops include a derelict mansion that Mrs. Havisham would call untidy, a whimsical ship sailing across the ocean blue, a vaguely Caribbean stronghold city ruled by a pirate king and a hidden cave of mystical secrets. The basic premise compelling him on his travels to these locales is that Queen Victoria (an underutilised Jessie Buckley) has fallen gravely ill and is need of a magical remedy. Joining the good doctor on his quest are his animal compatriots including Polly the maternal parrot (voiced by Emma Thompson), Chee-Chee the cowardly gorilla (Rami Malek), Yoshi the gruff polar bear (John Cena), Plimpton the sarcastic ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani), and Dab-Dab the scatter-brained duck (Octavia Spencer). Also along for the ride is Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), a young animal-loving boy who steps in as Dolittle’s apprentice.

I think that’s the premise anyway; Dolittle is so cluttered with content and noise that it’s near impossible to make any of it out. Any sort of emotional resonance or thematic exploration that was supposed to be carried all the way through gets lost amidst all the screeches, pratfalls and fart jokes. We get that Dr. Dolittle is an unhinged but brilliant man who has lived in seclusion ever since his wife’s death (because of course our antihero’s backstory includes a tragic romance with a woman who only appears in flashbacks and never speaks a line of dialogue). We therefore do get these vague gestures towards something almost resembling an arc wherein a wounded recluse finds that the only way to heal himself and his animal patients is for them to open themselves and their sanctuary to the outside world, but between Downey Jr.’s bizarre acting choices and the absence of any intelligible character development it’s hard to read even that much into any of it. Playing a character previously depicted on-screen by Rex Harrison and Eddie Murphy in his first non-Marvel movie since 2014, not even Downey Jr. himself seems to know what he’s supposed to be going for and winds up fumbling into this awkward middle ground between his Ritchie Sherlock and Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow while clumsily maintaining a distractingly inconsistent accent. If ever there was an actor who might have been able to make some sense out of the chaos, it would be him. Sadly, some films are beyond saving.

The problems with Dolittle are legion and we could spend all day dissecting its narrative shortcomings, its weak characterisation and its staggering unfunniness but these are all just symptoms of what’s really wrong with this movie. The real problem is far deeper and more foundational: it is an incomplete film. Dolittle is a failure of filmmaking at its most basic, rudimentary level. Even when given a simple scene of characters talking, be it human to animal or human to human, everything about it feels off. Dialogue is spoken from off-screen or by characters facing away from the camera, eye-lines between the actors and their computer-generated co-stars don’t align, and the continuity between and within scenes is all over the place. Characters such as a dancing orangutan and a guy in stocks called Jeff turn up out of nowhere to deliver a gag only to suddenly disappear, never to be mentioned again. Footage that has been ripped out of its original context and repurposed to fulfil functions and communicate ideas that it was never intended for sticks out like a sore thumb. This is filmmaking 101 stuff we’re talking about and a movie that cannot get them right is no better than a book without any understanding of its own language or a song that cannot sustain its own key, timbre or form. Such rules can and should be defied or broken, but to do so would demand far greater literacy and self-awareness than Dolittle possesses.

I suppose that as far as kids movies go the CG animals are watchable enough; this is the kind of film where it works better if the animals look cutesy and cartoonish than if they look photorealistic. The movie did itself no favours though by casting based more on star power than on vocal talent. Many of the voices are so generic or are so inappropriate for the creature in question (looking at you Malek) that it isn’t always apparent who is saying what in a given scene. Not that learning who said what would be very illuminating given that 90% of the animals’ roles can be broken down to reaction shots and cringeworthy one-liners. The low point for me was probably watching a tiger called Barry (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) scream “My Barry berries” upon being kicked in the groin (yes, that happens). Michael Sheen, who gleefully plays a moustache-twirling villain, appears to be the only actor who truly understands what kind of movie he’s in. What that is, I’m still not sure if I can say. There’s a definite Pirates of the Caribbean swashbuckling epic aesthetic it’s going for, but it cannot hope to reconcile that feeling with its more topical, anachronistic elements. These include a whole bunch of modern quips like “snitches get stitches”, an Angry Birds reference, and an ironclad warship that dogs (geddit?) Dolittle and his crew. Again, these are elements that would work better in a movie that has a better idea of what it is but I don’t think Dolittle has a clue.

Dolittle is one of those truly bad films that really put things into perspective. In many of the reviews I’ve read I’ve seen a lot of comparisons being made between this film and Cats. There is a fundamental difference though which is that Cats, for all of the outrageous choices it made in depicting this hellish world inhabited by these grotesque, deranged, hypersexual humanoid cats, knew precisely what kind of movie it was. It may well be the most disturbing film ever made, but it’s also striking, true to itself, and memorable. Dolittle is none of those things; it is just an outlandishly bad film that offers nothing worthy of a strong reaction. The only thing in this whole film that I can honestly call distinctive is that it contains an extended dragon fart joke (yes, really). In essence it is the same kind of movie we see come out of Hollywood every year, one that was designed by committee to appeal to the lowest common denominator with no allowance for cleverness, creativity or contemplation. Kids will probably laugh at the silly cartoon animals and parents may even be grateful for the temporary distraction, but they deserve better than this kind of rubbish. ‘Lazy’ is not a word I like using when criticising films because it devalues the efforts of those working people employed by the studios who put their time and labour into creating their rubbish, but in a film that feels this hastily strung together, that seemingly doesn’t care about offering its audience anything new or exciting and that neglects to employ the talent at its disposal to any greater use, I cannot think of a more appropriate word.