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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Onward, Review: Upward, downward, northward, southward, eastward, westward, and afterward

Onward, Review: Upward, downward, northward, southward, eastward, westward, and afterward

A potpourri of various elements found across several genres, animation giants Disney and Pixar’s Onward is good fun while it lasts. The film uses motivational and familial themes to string together a tale of an era wherein everything modern co-exists with almost everything mythical and magical. It stretches your imagination to some limits, but once you set your disbelief to the required frequency of suspension, you can chug along for another obstacle-ridden, curse-given, determination-driven treasure hunt. It’s not spell-binding stuff (pun intended) by any measure, so it might pay to go with modest expectations.

Magic exists in this age, but barely. Mastering it requires a lot of effort, while the availability of modern inventions has obviated the need of it. In the town of New Mushroomton live two teenage boys, who are all but human (long pointed ears differentiate them): Iandore ‘Ian’ Lightfoot, who is just turning 16, lacking in self-confidence for want of a father figure (his father passed away when he wasn’t even born), and Barley Lightfoot, Ian's older brother, a bumbling, bungling, dominating, history and magic fanatic, who longs to go on a proper adventure.

As a birthday gift, their mother Laurel hands them over something their father Wilden left them: a magical staff, alongside a letter, a rare phoenix gem, and a guide to a ‘visitation spell’ that can resurrect Wilden for just one day. Barley attempts to create the spell, but fails. However, Ian succeeds in doing so later that night. Due to Barley's interference, the spell is interrupted and only the lower half of Wilden's body is physically re-formed (he was materialising bottom to top). Resolving to fix their mistake, the brothers leave on a quest to acquire another phoenix gem, in order to re-attempt the spell. Their mother returns from the bakery with a cake for Ian, only to find the boys gone, with a note left for her, and she leaves in her car, to find them, heading for the Manticore Tavern, run by the Manticore creature called Corey, who has wings but cannot fly, can breathe fire and has a scorpion’s tail.

A collaborative effort of director Dan Scanlon (Monster’s University), Jason Headley (novels, short films, commercials) and Keith Bunin (playwright, TV; film named Horns), the screenplay tries to address the entire teenage span, 13-19, by having its two lead characters aged 16 and probably 19. 13-16ers might find these two as peers and characters to look up to. Those in their 20s are not likely to enjoy the roller-coaster as much as their juniors, for they would have most likely outgrown magical fantasies and wanderous spells and entered the realm of superheroes, a different ball-game altogether. You need a certain amount of belief in alternate reality and a universe just one level away from our own to digest the fare served by Scanlon, Headley and Bunin. To their credit, though, they have managed to provide some novelty alongside stereo-typical, stencilesque narrative.

Onward’s story was inspired by Scanlon’s own fatherless real life upbringing, as his father died when he was just one year old and, like in the film, he had an older brother. Magic, as is obvious, has been used as a metaphor for potential, for in Onward, magic does not work unless it is performed with full commitment and the “heart’s fire”. This happens half-a-dozen times, to really underscore the inspirational thrust of the movie. In a well-balanced milieu, unicorns eat out of trash cans and fight over their catch, while one of the main characters, Colt Bronco, Laurel’s boy-friend, is a centaur and a police officer, with a uniform and a badge on his upper half. Two other police officers are a cyclops and a faun respectively. A large part of the proceedings are in the shape of a road movie, with Barley at the steering of his Dad’s done-up van. Obstacles, speeding tickets, races against a meanie pixie biker gang and running out of gasoline are only some of the ‘milestones’ along the way. There are moments in the first half that begin to make you shift in your chair, until the second half makes the patience worthwhile.

To the discerning, the film is much more about family (mother, two brothers and mother’s police officer boy-friend), preaching (don’t run from the police; don’t exploit a buyer because he needs the goods desperately, and more), moralising (find love in a brother’s bossy and piling on behaviour; put your soul into everything you do, including magic and learning driving), loss (coping with being a fatherless child), missing someone sorely (a father you never saw, a father you would do anything to see, even if it was for a day, or part of it), motivation (tap your inner resources; learn to speak-up; keep trying till you succeed; learn to use your dormant, even vestigial wings to fly) than adventure and treasure hunting. You also encounter some funny names, as you can read below.

Tom Holland voices Ian while Chris Pratt is Barley. Laurel Lightfoot is Julia Louis-Dreyfus and her husband is Kyle Bornheimer. Octavia Spencer is cast as the voice of Manticore Corey, Mel Rodriguez plays Colt Bronco. Lena Waithe is the cyclops cop Specter (never mind the spelling), while the faun police officer, named Gore, get life thanks to Ali Wong. Grey Griffin performs as the pixie bikers gang leader, Dewdrop, and the greedy pawn-shop owner Grecklin is Tracey Ullman. Then there is the automobile called Gwinvere.

Onward moves in many directions-- upward, downward, northward, southward, eastward, westward, along the expressway and on the path of pain--simultaneously, which can be both an asset and a liability. The computer animation is generally of a high standard, except in a few occasions of perspective and magnification. Young adults will enjoy the film more when they go to watch it in groups, or with family members. How a younger sibling discovers that his intolerable big brother has a heart of gold can be an uplifting tale indeed. And, ah yes, the title refers to a mark on the speedometer that means ‘O’ for onward. One piece of advice: don’t ever drive like they do in the film. Remember the dictum, driving like hell could get you there sooner than you could have imagined.

Rating: ** ½


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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