Do you remember when every Pixar movie started with a charming animated short? Surely we all recall the one with the birds on the telephone wire, the one about the snowman trying to break out of the snow globe and the bouncing Jackalope one each which played at the front of Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles respectively.
This new Pixar film has a cartoon before it as well but randomly it is a Simpsons one. This is a result of Disney’s purchase of 20th Century Fox and all of its associated brands. Yep, Bart and his family now live in the house of mouse and the short even starts with Mickey’s silhouette blending into Homer’s followed by the words ‘Disney welcomes the Simpsons’. This is a celebration of this new partnership. It is a real shame then that what follows is a fairly neutered mini episode of the thirty three year old show, cutely featuring baby Maggie falling in love with a boy at the local play park. This does sadly seem to confirm any fears that the Simpsons will lose all of its irreverence under this new management.
To be fair Disney do seem to keep their fingerprints off established properties when they purchase them, so hopefully this new overly safe Simpsons story will prove anomalous. There is certainly no real evidence that either Marvel or Star Wars have been ‘Disneyfied’. It is true that Pixar’s output has been a little more hit and miss since Walt’s company bought them in 2006 but any correlation is far from proven here. Pixar only produced six feature films prior to 2006 and alongside the weaker ones; The Good Dinosaur, Monsters University, Finding Dory and Cars 2 & 3, since then they’ve also given us truly sublime cinematic experiences such as Toy Story 3, Inside Out and the first ten minutes of Up.
This latest film is mid level Pixar. In terms of the recent output it is way below Coco, Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4 but probably sits comfortably alongside something like Brave. The best of this Disney subsidiary’s movies feature wonderful characterisation, sharp wit and beautiful bittersweet emotional engagement and Onward successfully follows this formula to some extent. It isn’t up there with the best of modern Disney, aside of Pixar’s work it also fails to match Zootropolis, Moana, Tangled or either of the Frozens, but it has its moments. What it lacks perhaps is enough new ideas.
The story is set in a world of mythical creatures where sorcery has died out and everyone lives their lives in accordance with a normal contemporary existence. The joke is ogres, centaurs and cyclops with jobs and houses and schools and cars and phones. In this world feral unicorns scrabble in the bins and fight in alleys. (Under these circumstances it seems odd that one of the heroes would have a pegasus painted on the side of his van. In this world isn’t that like having a mural of a winged rat. Surely this devolution has robbed all equine creatures of their majesty.) This whole modern magical monsters idea works well enough but it feels a little unoriginal coming two and a half years after the Will Smith fantasy police drama Bright which did exactly the same thing. It’s hard not to think of that movie watching this one, especially since both heavily feature non human cops.
Then wouldn’t you know it, the two protagonists of Onward, just like the central duo in Bright, come into possession of a magic wand and, just as in Bright, are suddenly off on a dangerous new mission. Although in this case they are siblings and are randomly accompanied by the legs of their deceased father. Unlike Bright but in common with every Disney feature length cartoon ever, the loss of a parent defines the heroes and everything they do. (Apparently they are elves but they look more like smurfy trolls to me.) In the end though they realise that they have enough because they have each other, so basically it’s doing what Frozen did with sisters only this time with brothers.
Onward is fun but a little forgettable. It has gags, both sight and verbal, an engaging story and a cool battle at the end but like that Simpsons cartoon at the start, it isn’t quite what we’ve come to hope for. Still, onward and upward. (Maybe that will be the name of the sequel.)
The Ripley Factor:
The management of the gender politics was actually my favourite thing about this film. As well as following the boys on their own adventure the movie also has a whole subplot involving their mum teaming up with another formidable female ally and going after them to clean up the mistakes they make. For me the message of the whole thing was not about the importance of brotherhood but was basically that Mums are the real heroes and fathers can end up being half the man you’d expected.
Onward also has an openly gay character which for a Disney animated feature is the real quest. Not possibly gay like the antelope neighbours in Zootropolis or the free spirited Honeymaren in Frozen II, or indeed Elsa, but actually a woman who speaks matter-of-factly about being in a relationship with a woman. She’s not a main player so that dragon has yet to be slayed but at least they’ve picked up the sword. Outdated and prejudice taboos watch out; Mickey does not look like he is going to stay silent as a mouse on this topic anymore. Frankly they can do what they like with The Simpsons if they’ve got this on their agenda.