[Oscar Madness Monday] Onward (2020)

Director: Dan Scanlon
Cast: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer
Screenplay: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin
102 mins. Rated PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Animated Feature Film

Onward has a notable distinction as being one of the first films heavily impacted by the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic, a piece of history that has changed cinema and the theatrical experience for years to come (and make no mistake, its effect on cinema is not the most important effect of the pandemic, but it is notable that this event has and will change the landscape). It had a release date, it met said date, and then it underperformed. I skipped the early screening due to the mounting concern that this virus might be hitting the US any day, and I only ended up going to the theater once more before the shutdown officially took place (I was concerned that it may have been my last chance to see a movie in the theater for some time, a notion I ended up being right about), and it wasn’t for Onward. Onward’s under-performance should forever be met with an asterisk and an explanation for why it seemed to fail, but time tends to smooth out the details and forget the context. Future generations will likely see this film as an underperforming Pixar film, a rarity for the company, and something that I was sad to have missed in theaters. Barring the Cars franchise, I like most of the Pixar slate, and I really wanted to see Onward after catching the trailer, and even though the film is overshadowed by the superior Soul (the other 2020 Pixar film), I still found the story to be heartfelt and the adventure enjoyable enough.

Onward is set in a fantasy world that has seemingly lost its magic. Technology has replaced mystical forces here, and the world has adapted. Unicorns are feral creatures that rummage through garbage cans, pixies are now part of motorcycle gangs, and the remnants of what came before are now a fantasy role-playing game. Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Cherry), a high-school age elf dealing with a massive confidence issue, lives in New Mushroomton with his mother and brother. Ian never met his father, Wilden, who passed away just before his birth, but on his sixteenth birthday, his mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Drefus, Downhill, TV’s Seinfeld) gives him a gift from his father, a magical staff capable of bringing his dad back to life for one day. When the spell is stopped midway, Ian and his brother, Barley (Chris Pratt, The Lego Movie, TV’s Parks & Recreation), are left with only the bottom half of their father. Now, on a race against the clock, these two brothers must embark upon a mythical quest to complete the spell and see their father before the day is up.

It’s interesting that Pixar has never taken on high-fantasy before. The closest they’ve gotten is Brave, a film with fantastical elements but never to the extent that Onward gets. I really enjoyed this world that director/co-writer Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) has given us. There is a genuinely interesting world that’s been created for this film with a level of meticulous detail that Pixar is known for. Scanlon showcases a love for all sorts of fantastical elements including iconic references to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Gygax’s Dungeons & Dragons, and it never feels like a cheap shot or dunking on the accomplishments of these creators in the fantasy genre. If anything, Scanlon goes at these elements with a Mel Brooks-ian eye for having fun with the material while showing respect to it.

Within the confines of that unique and enjoyable world-building, I did like what Scanlon and his co-writers were going for with the familial story of these two brothers. This is a pretty heady little movie with an emotional punch that I expected and was still surprised by. What I really like about the quest is how it showcases for these two characters what is most important following the immense loss of a father figure, and it also doesn’t exactly go where I expected it, offering a gut punch in the film’s third act that strengthens the movie and ends it on a captivating and perhaps controversial note.

The journey in getting to that captivating finish, however, is a little simplistic and paint-by-numbers. There were many plot points in this film that I could see coming from miles away, a lot of setups that have easy payoffs, and a lot of character beats that I was expecting. That’s not to fault the film for trying, but outside of its finale, I was not surprised by anything in the journey of the heroes. There’s fun to be had, no doubt, and I don’t want to compare it to other Pixar films but I’ll say that so often recently, I have found myself shocked by many of the Pixar storylines (I’m looking at you, Coco), and their willingness to play with expectations, and though the film ends strong, I just feel like so many of the journey plot beats feel like unused Shrek story beats. In that way, the film is extremely accessible but, at times, a bit too easy and perhaps forgettable.

Onward feels like a gateway fantasy film that will likely convert non-fantasy children to this kind of storytelling. There’s a definite love for the genre on display here, and a genuine and compelling emotional work for its characters here, even if the film’s plotting feels a little too easy and expected throughout. Onward ends on a beautiful and risky note that will likely allow audiences to wipe away their tears and really think on the film’s message for some time after, though the bulk of the middle of it is forgettable. Tom Holland and Chris Pratt have some nice vocal talents for a film like this, and Onward comes with a recommendation from this film fan.

3.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

For my review of Dan Scanlon’s Monsters University, click here.

The Shape of Water (2017)

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Cast: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg

Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor

123 mins. Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language.

 

Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak) is a director known for his visual flair and attention to detail, but he has yet to cross the barrier into household name. His newest film, The Shape of Water, is his most deeply personal and intimate. The film is garnering some critical and festival praise right now, but is that warranted? This writer has been excited for the film since early this year, and I was overjoyed to catch a screening of it earlier this week.

The film stars Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky, Godzilla) as Elisa Esposito, a mute woman who works overnights as a janitor for the Occam Aerospace Research Center. She is perhaps too curious to discover that a strange new asset has been delivered to the facility one night, a dangerous new creature discovered in South America. As the creature is unable to communicate with sound, he quickly takes to Elisa’s use of sign language as well as the gifts of boiled eggs she brings him. When Elisa learns what the creature’s handler, Strickland (Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), plans to do with him, she hatches a plan to save the amphibious being and, along the way, discovers that her affection for the creature has grown exponentially.

I’m going to say it right now: The Shape of Water is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. The plot is familiar enough in its simplest terms, but del Toro proves yet again that isn’t the story you tell but rather how you tell it that makes a masterpiece, and this one might be the director’s best work to date. The story he tells is one of love, attraction, repression, and loneliness using the central relationship between Elisa and the amphibious creature, played brilliantly by del Toro favorite Doug Jones (Hellboy II: The Golden Army, TV’s Star Trek: Discovery).

While Elisa and the Creature are the central relationship of the film, the secondary relationships give a nice contrast, showing Elisa’s friendship with chatty co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures, The Divergent Series: Allegiant) and the tenderness of her friendship with neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins, The Visitor, LBJ). The web is stretched further to show the way that Zelda behaves toward her husband and also how Giles, a closeted homosexual, pursues an attraction in an era where repression has made him self-conscious and very lonely. Then, there’s the polarized opposition of Strickland’s family dynamic and the way he treats his colleagues, specifically Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, A Serious Man, Arrival). The film’s near-constant unraveling of every relationship is fascinating and introspective in all the right ways.

The Shape of Water might be the best film I’ve seen this year. There’s a lot to unpack, and it feels like I need to see it again to fully connect to it, but the film, while a bit lengthy in its second act, is an exemplary look at love and attraction presented in its most unique fashion. This movie will challenge audiences and I hope you leave with as many questions as I did. That is, after all, the beauty in it.

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

Have you seen The Shape of Water? What did you think? What’s your favorite relationship in the film? Let me know/drop a comment below!

 

For more Almighty Goatman,

Zootopia (2016)

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Director: Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush

Cast: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrance, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, Tommy Chong, J.K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer, Alan Tudyk, Shakira

Screenplay: Jared Bush, Phil Johnston

108 mins. Rated PG for some thematic elements, rude humor and action.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Animated Feature of the Year [Pending]

IMDb Top 250: #183 (as of 8/6/2016)

 

You want proof that miracles can happen? Look no further than this year’s Zootopia.

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Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin, TV’s Big Love, Tinker Bell and the Legend of the Never Beast) grew up being told by just about everyone that she wasn’t fit to be who she wanted to be: a police officer in the big city of Zootopia. But she proves them all wrong. When she gets to Zootopia, however, she discovers that it’s going to take a lot of hard work to prove herself. Then, she comes across a dangerous mystery involving animal members of the society going stark-raving mad, so Judy enlists the help of con-fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman, Horrible Bosses, Central Intelligence) to help her discover who or what is responsible.

Let’s just discuss the problems that Zootopia faced. After Disney/Pixar faced issues with both Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur as far as production went, they immediately went into a film like Zootopia that faced major backlash after the initial test screenings. The original version focused almost entirely on Nick Wilde, who became downright unlikable. The entire film was overhauled in favor of Judy Hopps. Then, the decision to bring in so many heavy issues like Race and Class discrimination. Zootopia should’ve failed.

But it didn’t. Zootopia is a rare animated film that has major appeal for both children and parents (and no, I’m not just referring to the strange Breaking Bad reference). It puts together an interesting case for the heroes to solve, but Zootopia also faces issues like racial discrimination and class treatment head-on, as well as issues of assumed gender roles. In the film, Judy experiences discrimination from Chief Bogo (Idris Elba, Pacific Rim, Star Trek Beyond) over her appearance. The world treats Judy that she was born a bunny, so her place is on the farm. The major themes of Zootopia may be simple (Don’t judge a book by its cover), but its underlying subtext is real heavy.

And that’s fine. The adult material is easily related to viewers of all ages. And the kids get something out of all this too. They see a funny little scene involving sloths. We as adults see a hilarious satire of the DMV (you know the scene). It works so well on multiple levels.

Now, Zootopia isn’t perfect. It runs on a little too long and doesn’t have all that rewatchability that most Disney films have, but these are minor issues overall.

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The fact of the matter is that Zootopia is a gorgeously animated film that surpassed all of my expectations. It will easily be on the roster of best animated films for this year. If you haven’t seen it yet, this film comes highly recommended.

 

4/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

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