For a generation of millennials, those of us who came of age in the 1990s, Space Jam has miraculously accrued a nostalgic fixation. Michael Jordan starred alongside cartoon favorites and we all learned valuable lessons about teamwork. The soundtrack also, as the kids say, slapped, with that titular banger welcoming us to the jam and the R. Kelly eponymous ballad, “I Believe I Can Fly.” Flash forward 25 years, and a new basketball superstar is looking to relaunch the franchise and reinvigorate the Looney Tunes pals for a new generation. Lebron James plays a fictionalized version of himself struggling to connect with one of his sons. He wants the boy to take basketball seriously but worries about his commitment and thinks video games, the child’s true passion, are a distraction for him. He and his son get sucked into the “server-verse” of Warner Bros. studios thanks to an angry A.I. (Don Cheadle) who just wants respect. The scornful A.I. challenges Lebron to a basketball game while tempting Lebron’s son to the dark side. Lebron teams up with Bugs Bunny to reunite the classic Tunes to put together a winning team.
This movie is clearly not intended for adults but at the same time it feels engineered from their references. Are children going to understand William Shatner impressions? Parodies of The Matrix, or Mad Max: Fury Road, or Casablanca? To that end, I question if we’ve come to a point in popular entertainment where the Looney Tunes characters have been eclipsed. When I grew up, cable television, let alone channels devoted to entertaining children, were just beginning in the 1980s, so I did grow up with classic cartoons from decades prior. I knew about Bugs and Daffy and Tom and Jerry and Hannah Barbara and the old guard. Modern American children have grown up with a generation of original cartoons and programming and I would argue they have more nostalgic reverence for shows like The Fairly Odd Parents, Gumball, and other popular Cartoon Network originals. I strongly doubt that the majority of the movie’s stated target audience, children, have any emotional investment or recognition for the old Looney Tunes characters. Perhaps the entire Space Jam sequel is designed to reignite interest in a certain younger demographic, and this wouldn’t surprise me as its real source for existence. To be fair, the original 1996 Space Jam was created to sell sneakers, so it’s not like this is out of step for the franchise’s integrity.
The conception of this movie is less about Lebron James interacting with the classic Looney Tunes characters than Lebron James being the spokesman for a catalogue of Warner Bros. intellectual property (IP). What children are sitting around saying, “I can’t wait to interact with all my favorite Warner properties?” Children do not think like this, they don’t segregate into tribes for different corporate masters. They like what they like and don’t think about whether its corporate parentage is with Disney or Viacom or whatever. Space Jam: A New Legacy feels less like a story or even a movie and more like a catalogue launch for the Warner Bros. gift shop (get your Grandma Matrix sweaters just in time for the fourth movie coming out these holidays!).
The intermingling of different worlds and properties can be done, see The Lego Movie, but more needs to be done other than transporting characters into a world they do not belong. Watching Granny perform moves from The Matrix isn’t funny because what is even being set up for comedy? It’s not a tweaking or commentary on the original, nor is there any recognizable comedy angle; it’s what Family Guy typically does – repeating the scenarios but with different faces. There is a key difference between reference and parody (a point I have discussed at EXTENSIVE LENGTH in my reviews of the very bad Friedberg and Seltzer spoofs). Nobody cares that much about these characters that just seeing them in a different environment is enough. Watching Wile E. Cayote as one of the War Boys in Fury Road is not enough, and I absolutely adore that movie and consider it an instant classic, but if I wanted to just watch Fury Road, I would gladly just watch Fury Road (they do not even call it “Furry Road,” come on!).
By far, the most confounding part of this new Space Jam is the decision-making process over what IP should be included and what should be excluded. I would be fascinated to watch a documentary series just on the creative clashes with studio execs. There are some bizarre choices selected to attend the culminating basketball game as rowdy spectators. I can understand memorable figures like King Kong, Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, the Iron Giant, and the Scooby Doo van. Those are immediately recognizable for modern-day children. However, why is Jim Carey’s Mask character there? Why is the grotesque Danny DeVito version of the Penguin there? Why is the Night King from Game of Thrones there? Why is Pennywise the Clown, a vicious and frightening character, there? Why are the droogs from A Clockwork Orange there? Who is that supposed to appeal to? Why would anyone in their right mind include a gang best known for wanton violence and rape to be faces in the crowd to cheer on a basketball game? It would be akin to taking the hillbillies who rape Ned Beatty in Deliverance and placing them side-by-side with cartoons for a movie intended for children. If the droogs and Pennywise made the cut, what inappropriate characters from the vaults of Warner Bros. were denied? This fascinates me.
I also have problems when Bugs and the other Tunes step into the third dimension. Characters that were intended for two-dimensions always look awkward when transported into a three-dimensional realm. It was a smart move keeping the cartoons as their standard hand-drawn selves in the original Space Jam. When the big basketball game commences, the Tunes and James are pulled into three dimensions and the characters do not look good. The circumference of their heads and how it relates to their mouths moving looks all wrong. Bugs looks like a Mylar birthday balloon that has somehow gained sentience. This extra step is likely meant to appeal to modern-day audiences who have turned their noses on more traditional hand-drawn animation in feature films (Tangled and Frozen began as 2-D animated films before going to 3-D). It’s another curious case meant to modernize the Looney Tunes and appeal to a younger demo, and yet it runs counter to so much more of the programming choices and contradictory decision-making.
Is Space Jam: A New Legacy a good movie? Quite simply, no, but then by objective standards neither was the original Space Jam. Lebron James may still be trailing his Airness in a few more NBA records but King James has more natural charisma and acting ability than Jordan who settled as straight man/pitch man. There is an occasional joke that earned a laugh from me, the best being the bait-and-switch reveal of Michael Jordan returning to the Tune Squad, which also seems to imply that Sylvester the cat is kind of racist. I liked Lil’ Rel. Congrats also to the filmmakers for bringing back Lola Bunny, having her voiced by Zendaya, and realizing she can just be a lady bunny good at playing basketball. The original Lola Bunny was hyper sexualized and I’ve already read too many comments from dregs on the Internet upset this new rabbit doesn’t make them feel funny in their pants (“IF I CANNOT OBJECTIFY THIS CARTOON RABBIT, THEN WHY AM I EVEN WATCHING A MOVIE INTENDED FOR CHILDREN?”). The moral or message is pretty simple about accepting others for who they are and not how you demand, which is weirdly exemplified in a cross-generational conflict where Lebron will not allow his son to play video games because his coach growing up thought they were a waste of time. As if he’s only allowed to play basketball with every waking and sleeping second of his existence. Lebron grew up in the late 90s when video games were mainstream and great. His son is an obvious game design prodigy, but it will take him the whole movie to see.
Feeling like the unholy IP orgies that were Ready Player One and The Emoji Movie, the Space Jam sequel (or reboot) feels more like a catalogue launch or a streaming channel opening its vast archives for ready-made consumer consumption. There are several moments where I just shrugged and said to myself, “Well, that happened,” like Granny doing her fancy Matrix moves or Porky Pig battle rapping. I think the idea of Lebron helping the classic Looney Tunes characters in another wacky edition of basketball would have made for a suitable children’s movie. The original only focuses on the Looney Tunes and gets by. For whatever reason, the studio execs insisted to the six credited screenwriters (pity them all, and the sixty un-credited) that this serve not as a franchise relaunch but as a corporate portfolio branding showcase. The movie gets lost in the shuffle from all the haphazard and contradictory impulses to see this through, turning from the game of basketball into decades-past-their-prime Austin Powers jokes. Regardless, Space Jam: A New Legacy is less new and more everything Warner Bros. owns the rights to in the past that they would like to remind you about. Watch it all now on HBO MAX, folks!
Nate’s Grade: C-
Pixar’s second straight direct-to-Disney-plus outing, Luca, is a decidedly lesser movie from the creative powerhouse. It’s more in keeping with the low stakes and minimal characterization of something like the Cars franchise or Monster’s University. It has its gentle charms and important themes about acceptance, accessibility, and identity, but Luca feels a bit too shallow and lacking in magic. Two sea monster boys want to feel the thrill and freedom of living on land, and it just so happens they transform into looking like humans as long as they don’t get wet. They must learn the ways of blending in, keep their secret, and win the local triathlon to achieve their dream of owning a Vespa scooter. Yes, ostensibly it’s about two kids, and a third once they become friends with a rambunctious redheaded girl in town, wanting to win a race to get a scooter, and you can see the larger theme about friendship and self-acceptance in the name of intolerance, but the movie feels like Ponyo meets The Little Mermaid with the setting of Call Me By Your Name (with maybe some of its coming-of-age queer coding?). The movie barely gets to 84 minutes long, pre-credits, and even that feels very lackadaisical and padded, stretching a thin storyline with minimal development. The animation is expectantly gorgeous and colorful, the lovely daubs of light are so soothing to watch, though I didn’t care for the Gravity Falls-style character designs. The stakes are low and personal but I didn’t really care about the broad characters. There are some fun farcical hijinks trying to hide their monster selves from being seen, and the conclusion has a sweet message without being overtly sentimental, but Luca is little more than a fitfully amusing yet slight seaside vacation for your hungry eyes.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Beautifully animated with painterly water color visuals, Wolfwalkers is another treat from the acclaimed Irish studio that is single-handedly trying to bring back hand-drawn animation. The visuals are a delight and styled in a flat dimensional space reminiscent of Medieval tapestries (and Wes Anderson movies). The story brings to life 17th century Celtic mythology in a way that is still relevant today and concerns weighty themes about family identity, female independence, religious persecution, prejudice, colonial occupation and exploitation, and environmental conservation. It’s part Miyazaki and Brave and also reverent to its own cultural heritage, and it’s emotionally affecting and engrossing as well as being a treat for the eyes. We watch a young girl befriend a wild “wolfwalker,” a girl who can transform into a wolf when she sleeps. their bond will push each other to fight against forces trying to dominate the forest and morality. The filmmakers have carefully laid out the rules of their story and the implementation of the special powers so that everything happens through gradual circumstances where the plot feels as if it is following an entirely organic path. The voice acting is excellent and heartrending and perfectly paired for the exaggerated, wood-block-styled character designs. It’s a lovely and entertaining supernatural fable with enough thematic relevance, girl power, and visual grace to reaffirm just how magical traditional animation can still be.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Disney’s new animated feature, Raya and the Last Dragon, is coming at an opportune time and in some ways it’s a movie of the moment. It’s all about a divided nation learning to heal and learning to trust one another despite bitter disputes. I can only hope the ensuring months and years of political dispute in this country can end as fortunately as Disney’s fantasy fable.
We follow Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) as she embarks on a quest to save her people and the divided lands of Kumandra from a mythical evil that has returned to the land. Dragons gave their lives to fight this monstrous force known as the Druun that turns life into stone. The world has been divided into separate nations surrounding a dragon-shaped body of water. There is Tail, Claw, Heart, Fang, and Spine, Raya ventures to uncover the last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), the dragon that originally thwarted the Druun, except Sisu says she’s not exactly the best at magic and dragon stuff. Together, Sisu and Raya are chased by Raya’s childhood nemesis Namaari (Gemma Chan), the next-in line with Fang, the nation blamed for the new outbreak of the Druun. Raya must find a broken piece of Sisu’s dragon stone from each nation to level up her powers and banish the Druun once and for all and return everyone who has turned to stone, including her father.
In many ways, Raya feels like Disney trying to do its own fantasy universe akin to the Last Airbender series. The world building is tantalizing and feels lived-in, the lands distinct and with personalities and different cultures, and those cultures are respective of their environments. I was pleased to continue with the movie and discover more well laid details that built out this world and its inhabitants, the relationships to the dragons, and the veneration of magic. The stone statues each represent a person succumbed to the evil, itself a byproduct of the inability of the splintered nations to unify and trust one another (more on theme later). I appreciated the respect and reverence given to the fallen and to the dragon statues as well. There’s a scene where Namaari and her crew are walking through a field of overgrown dragon statues and they treat it with such reverence like it was a war memorial. For Namaari personally and for Fang especially, the sacrifice of these creatures is one that humanity has been struggling to live up to. I also appreciated that the magic and lore is presented as we need it, so that the audience is overloaded early with an onslaught of new information needed to orient this make-believe world. The filmmakers do a fine job of building from previous established information and expanding naturally to complicate their world and the larger conflict. The plot through line is left pretty simple, collect the pieces of the magic rock, but because of the accessible formula it also builds anticipation we can attune to. It gets me to wonder what new power Sisu will inherit, how that new nation has dealt in the ensuing time with the power and influence of the magic shard, and what new fun character we’ll pick up along the way.
Raya is also an exciting edition to the Disney animated collection. I’ve watched the movie twice, and would watch again, but I really honed in on the action during my second viewing. The fight choreography is impressive and not simple standard kicks, punches, and sword slashes. There are specific moves and countermoves here, and the long takes with the action allow the audience to appreciate the complexity of the brawls as if we were watching The Raid. There were some moments that genuinely gave me goosebumps. I also appreciated that the action isn’t gratuitous; each scene has an emotional connection to a character and their conflict, even the many run-ins between Raya and Namaari trying to prove themselves against one another. This is also a movie where we are replete with strong female characters, diversity, and women in positions of power, and nobody makes a big deal out of it. It’s accepted as the norm and I think that’s smart. It’s nice to add another kick-ass Disney “princess” and for there to be not a single mention of romance throughout the movie. There are bigger issues and the ladies aren’t fighting over a boy’s attention but over their personal rivalry and anger. For a briskly paced 100-minute movie, Raya and the Last Dragon has enough action and awe to provide satisfying thrills for all ages.
Where Raya admirably succeeds is with its adherence and execution of theme. The characterization can be limited at times for anyone beyond our protagonist, but that doesn’t mean that the supporting players are without charm and resonance and importance. They contribute nicely, just in other ways. The screenplay does an excellent job of supporting the theme of trust and unity, a topic that is in short supply today in a turbulent time of social and political upheaval. The different clans of this fantasy land have resentment, animosity, and decades of score-settling to make it even harder to trust, especially anyone from the Fang nation, the people blamed for the current epidemic. It’s much easier to project anger on an outward force rather to blame than look at our own culpability, and it’s even harder to take that first step to repair the damage done from broken trust and manipulation. Still, the entire journey of Raya, both film and character, is on the importance of taking that step regardless of whether or not it works. Each character from a different nation represents another factor in dealing with grief, and each has reasons not to trust the others, to only think about themselves and their interests, to perpetuate a failing cycle.
The movie articulates the dangers of holding onto grudges and distrust with every moment, so when the climax happens it’s a small yet very meaningful payoff, where the characters don’t make grand final stands and showcase amazing powers against an overwhelming force. No, instead it’s about demonstrating faith in the possible goodness of another person and taking a leap. Sisu suggests offering a friendly gift to make amends and it becomes a running joke but it’s also indicative of her character and personal experiences, how she differs from the contemporary and more nihilistic world, and the larger theme. The movie mentions several points how empowering trust can be, to be valued and believed in, regardless of mistakes and misgivings, and Raya embodies this with every decision, meaning even the small moments and silly side characters have a larger purpose and contribution to the overall message of this tale.
There are some elements that hold Raya and the Last Dragon back from true greatness, joining the ranks of Disney’s recent epic 2010s run of Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia, Moana, and yes, Frozen (sorry haters, it’s still great). As I said before, the supporting characters are kept more at the idea level than multi-dimensional. They each represent a facet of loss, but I would have liked a little more attention given to them to have more tiny character moments and maybe even some realized arcs. As it stands, they support Raya on her arc and they become subsumed by her arc, and it works, but there was an opportunity to deepen these cute supporting players into more meaningful members. There are some elements that feel like holdovers or clues about earlier drafts, little remnants of scrubbed storylines. Repeatedly Sisu will remind us what an excellent swimmer she is as her special dragon power and we witness this once to use in a minor escape. With the build-up given, you’d expect the movie would make more with this in a climactic manner.
Raya and the Last Dragon is a worthy and exciting entry into the Disney animated canon and presents a fantasy world of its own making with detail, ingenuity, and care, supporting a central theme with every primary creative decision, even if some of them hinder what could have expanded the film into an ever bigger and more diverse ensemble. As it is, it’s all about Raya, who is an engaging and compelling figure trying to prove herself and atone for her own guilt. Her rival is given consideration as well from the pressure she’s under to serve her people. However, this is the Raya show (her name is in the title after all) and that’s plenty for 100-plus minutes of entertainment. Raya and the Last Dragon is a good-to-great animated fantasy film and one I think could support further exploration. This could be the start of Disney’s own Airbender world if they wanted. The animation is fluid and colorful and gorgeous and the character designs are easy to distinguish without placing undue emphasis on exaggerated features to characterize this as a Chinese fable. The vocal acting is great, and by the end of the movie, as its theme comes full circle, I don’t mind admitting I was even tearing up a bit. It’s a well-designed and well-developed fantasy with a secure emotional foundation to build upon.
Nate’s Grade: B+
I needed to watch Soul twice before I fully processed how I felt about it. Pixar’s latest animated wonder follows a New York City music teacher named Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) who goes into a coma right before his big break playing for a jazz legend. He’s transformed into a cuddly little blue tuft of cloud creature and informed his soul is ready for The Great Beyond. In a nod to Heaven Can Wait, Joe indignantly fights his way back to Earth to reclaim a life he felt was just now getting on track. His ticket back to Earth is through mentoring a surly, pessimistic young soul 22 (Tina Fey) that nobody seems able to reach, even Mother Theresa. Early on, there are two very clear realizations. First, Soul is beautiful to look at and very weird and art deco with its character designs in its spiritual realms. Second, the world building and rules of this special world are quite convoluted. Unlike Inside Out where you were dropped into a new world and all the parts added up with a sense of logic, the spirit world and especially the process of how baby souls become what they are seems hazy and arbitrary and not fully articulated. This confusing world building also includes the idea of people “being in the zone,” lost souls wandering the land as lumbering monsters, and a traveling group of mystics that can meditate their way into this higher plane of existence. That’s even before a second act trip back to Earth that reminded me of Brave and leaned into slapstick and comical misunderstandings. There is a soul guardian on the hunt for Joe to keep things back in order, though the consequences of a soul count being out of whack are never explained. I thought this antagonist character was going to amount to much more but is mostly forgotten. Where Soul succeeds is with its heart about people trying to find their spark, that special something that lifts their spirits and makes them who they are, and I think it’s an important lesson that it’s not the same as a purpose. The comedy banter between Foxx and Fey is solid and there are some funny sequences and a few gags that impressed for going the extra mile. I was interested from the opening moments but I cannot say I was terribly emotionally invested. Part of this is because the movie swiftly runs through so much world building and rule-setting in 90 minutes, partly because the character of Joe is a bit close-minded in how he designates success, and partly because the young character of 22 feels more like a sidekick than a developed supporting role. The musical score by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor is highly original and evocative. It was providing an emotional resonance and wonder I found missing at other points in the film. It feels very ethereal and propulsive and just new and exciting. The climactic track “Earthbound” feels so stirring and emotional and light. It’s my favorite film score of the year. Soul is a fun and imaginative movie that has some wrinkles with its world building, characterization, and delayed emotional investment, but even a second-tier Pixar movie means it’s still one of the better movies you’ll see for 2020.
Nate’s Grade: B
Lars von Trier’s latest shaky video opus is likely the most unique movie going experience you’ll have all year. Dancer in the Dark is a clever, heartfelt, and achingly beautiful tale of sorrow and redemption. Dancer stars Iceland’s version of Madonna in the elfin Bjork. She plays Selma, quite possibly the nicest but also most stubborn person in the world. She’s an immigrant in 1960s America working long and odd hours to ensure that she can raise enough money for her son. You see Selma is slowly going blind but continuing to work so she can make sure her son will not have to suffer the same inherited illness. So she works late on heavy industrial machinery causing accidents as her condition worsens all to stop her son’s genetic curse she will give to him. Selma’s escape has always been musicals. In life she hears music in unusual places and visualizes life stopping to burst out into a vibrant fully choreographed musical number. Selma’s life continues to degenerate along with her vision as events pile on worse and worse until they all come crashing together.
Dancer in the Dark is no picnic in the park. The movie is haunting but incredibly depressing. Lars von Trier’s previous film (Breaking the Waves) was another wrenching drama with good people going through rough times with no fraction of light at any end of a tunnel. His jerky handheld video work is back capturing the life of Selma and seemingly framing it in a more realistic sense. The video images are edited to look like a documentary and the whole feel is one of raw power. You aren’t merely watching a film, it’s like you are in it witnessing the actions from the sidelines. The escapist musical numbers are shot in glorious still film to contrast the drab realism of video. The colors are bright, the faces are happy, and the cinematography is a wonder to envision.
Bjork soars and delivers what should be an Oscar-caliber performance. I never knew the queen of alt-rock had such emotive powers. Selma’s innocence is keenly expressed in Bjork and her glassy eyes. Her love for her son is no more evident then all the suffering and tragedy she goes through. All of the suffering and tragedy could be avoided – except her son would not be helped.
The ensemble around Bjork work fantastic magic as well. Peter Stormare is a sad figure trying to just get a glimpse of Selma’s attention. David Morse is a down-and-out policeman who is Selma’s landlord and in need of some cash. He’s afraid to tell his bourgeois wife they’ve run empty with money. Catherine Deneuve turns in the brightest supporting performance as Selma’s co-worker and friend Kathy. She’s torn between trying to stop Selma from continuing on her acts that could cause her harm and helping her along her determination. A great scene as example of her care for Selma is when the two of them are in a theater watching an old Hollywood musical. At this point Selma is completely blind and can’t see what’s going on, so Kathy takes Selma’s palm and dances her fingers in correlation with the actions on screen to Selma’s delight. A simple scene yet so elegant and beautiful.
Dancer in the Dark is a wonderful piece of original film making that gives us the escape of hope and the crush of despair. Selma’s love of musicals and their role in life is perfect symbolism for discussion. Dancer will leave you with a distinct feeling by the end credits. Whether it’s sorrow or bewilderment Dancer in the Dark is a film not to miss.
Nate’s Grade: A
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I knew going back to my first Lars von Trier film was not going to be a pleasant experience, and oh what an understatement that turned out to be. von Trier has compared himself to a Nazi, his intense methods have driven his actors to the brink, including Dancer in the Dark’s Bjork who swore off the entire profession of acting after her experiences working with him. I am not surprised by this response because his movies have famously followed a formula of a woman being tortured by men, by society, by forces outsider her control, and then she suffers for two hours and dies, a victim of the cruelty of the universe. Repeat. It’s a formula that I’ve since grown weary of and after 2018’s The House That Jack Built I contemplated not watching another von Trier movie again. He just can’t help himself and his nihilistic, heavy-handed impulses handicap his genuine artistic abilities and the merits of his storytelling. Back in 2000, it all felt relatively new. von Trier was the biggest name of the Dogme 95 movement, a Danish collective of filmmakers who swore to adhere to digital video and other aesthetic rules to better replicate reality as it was, ripping away the glossy artifice of Hollywood fantasy. von Trier was subversive, provocative, and exciting, and since then I’ve broken free from the von Trier spell. I was questioning whether I would share Requiem for a Dream or Dancer in the Dark with my girlfriend, who had seen neither, and in hindsight I’m glad I picked Requiem instead (think about that, yikes).
Dancer in the Dark is a powerful experience and one that is unfortunately smothered by von Trier’s heavy hand. It’s easy to root for Selma (Bjork), a Czech transplant in small-town 1960s America (the movie was filmed in Sweden because von Trier is afraid to fly). She already has so much going against her: 1) she’s a woman, 2) she’s an immigrant, 3) she’s poor, 4) she’s suffering from a degenerative disease that will rob her of her sight. Even worse, her son will suffer the same fate unless Selma raises enough money for an operation. She takes on extra work at her factory, even if she’s not exactly qualified, and she’s a hopeful yet stubborn woman who says what she means, earning friends who will champion her. She’s also a lover of old-fashioned Hollywood musicals, as they presented an escape to her as a little girl growing up in poverty. America was the land of opportunity, where everyone dances all the time, sings their hearts out, and gets the girl or the guy by the conclusion of the finale. That dichotomy, between reality and fantasy, and all the cultural and psychological commentary within, is the strongest aspect of the film and a peak of ambition that von Trier never really got close to again with his later punishing dramaturgy. The first musical number doesn’t come until 45 minutes into the movie, and by that time we have had our heroine, her plight, and the first markers of a looming tragedy efficiently established.
Jeff (Peter Stormare), a lovesick co-worker who shows up every day to maybe drive Selma home, cannot understand musicals, saying people just burst out into song and how unrealistic this is, and Selma agrees, but for her it’s wonderful. She hears music in the world around her and it gives her life, especially as her vision deteriorates. As injustice after injustice falls upon her, Selma uses extravagant musicals as an escape, where everyone is a friend waiting to jump into the number and work together. A common refrain she sings is “there’s always someone to catch me,” referencing the choreography of musicals where the dancers frolic together but it’s also her request to the universe for a little help, for someone to catch her when she stumbles and provide that level support a woman of her means and background lacked in this landscape. The musical numbers staged by von Trier have a chaotic energy to them, assembled from dozens and dozens of sporadically placed cameras. They feel like a burst of imagination while keeping an improvisational feel; less drilled than managed. The first musical number “Cvalda” is a delirious daydream where Selma imagines the various sounds of the work machines creating a percussive symphony and she’s a Mary Poppins conductor. After Bill (David Morse) dies, she retreats to “Scatterheart” to make sense of her actions, with her son telling her she only did what she had to do and Bill rising from the dead to beg her forgiveness. When she’s in solitary confinement and can’t hear any sound, Selma goes into despair. She shouts the lyrics to selections from The Sound of Music to bring music back into her isolated world. Even on her march to execution, Selma copes by turning the “107 Steps” to the noose into a song. Her last words are her singing her final goodbyes to her off-screen son, so until the end musicals were how this woman chose to compensate for the rotten luck of her life. And oh boy was it ever rotten.
There’s one scene in the second half begging for symbolic unpacking where Selma is in the middle of her trial and the prosecution calls a famous Czech film actor and dancer to the stage. It’s none other than Oscar-winning theater legend Joel Grey (Cabaret) and his character doesn’t know who Selma is, even though she told the court she had been sending money to him (she listed her son’s account for his operation under a pseudonym to not risk it being derailed). This famous actor starred in movies in her native Czechoslovakia and crossed over to American cinema. He was an idol for young Selma and another figure to encapsulate the promise of America. Then as he’s testifying on the stand is when Selma drifts back into another rendition of “In the Musicals” and Grey joins her in tapping, and he confesses, “I didn’t mind it at all / That you were having a ball / at my musicals / And I was always there to catch you.” He understands and empathizes. This scene alone is just packed with so many layers of metaphor and projection and symbolic subtext and commentary and you could probably write an entire Master’s thesis on its myriad meanings. At its best, that’s Dancer in the Dark, when von Trier is using the language of musicals to subvert their form, to lay commentary on the un-reality is a rejection of the cruelty of real life, of finding order in disorder, finding community amid a nest of selfish vipers competing for dominance. It’s when von Trier uses our understanding of musicals to really make us think about the associations and contradictions that makes this movie a stirring and sometimes sensational experience.
Alas, the artistry is seriously wounded by von Trier’s heavy-handed approach to all drama. This has become even more pronounced after where von Trier has obliterated the entire world (2011’s Melancholia) and ruined a four-hour movie with a last-second dumb joke of an ending (2014’s two-part Nymphomaniac). Subtlety is not one of the tools von Trier prefers to dabble with. It’s a shame because he’s a natural storyteller when it comes to establishing vulnerable characters in fraught scenarios and slowly raising the temperature, organically transforming allies into enemies and friends into abusers. This is done very well in 2004’s Dogville as well, a movie I would argue both plays into and succeeds his tortured-woman formula of drama and political allegory. I would say Dogville is his second-best film precisely because I was expecting another unrelentingly unjust ending for another anguished woman. However, where a lighter touch could accomplish his points, von Trier instead brings out a bazooka. Selma’s deadly encounter with Bill happens at the halfway point in the film. From there there’s still another 65 minutes of her suffering to drag out to preposterous proportions. We go through the trial, her cross-examination, her willfully keeping secrets that will only make her look guilty to maintain a promise to a dead man, and then there’s her visitations in jail, her appeal, her rejection of her appeal because the costs will empty the fund’s for her son’s operation, the realization of her impending execution, the march to the execution, her being bound to a board because she cannot stand straight because she’s so scared, her rejection of the hood, her last song while she waits for the governor’s call, and then her abrupt death. There were several points where I was just pleading, “Enough already,” because it was so thoroughly exhausting.
Selma is served to be a martyr of an unjust system that looked suspiciously on immigrants, and Selma elects to accept her fate because anything less would endanger losing what she has set up for her son’s well-being. This woman takes all this punishment and that’s the story, America. That’s the story of America, America. That’s what von Trier is getting at, but the 140-minute movie is so overdone and so drawn out to obsess over the wrongs inflicted on this poor woman that it unintentionally blunts the message. The second half becomes a passion play where we watch our poor Selma elect to accept tragedy and self-sacrifice and endure all the injustices. It’s harrowing and upsetting but would still be so if we didn’t spend half of the movie dwelling on a litany of examples of her fated misery. I’m sure others will argue the crushing nature of the injustice is meant to convey for the viewer the feeling of aggravation and outrage. I would agree that outrage is sought, but when von Trier doesn’t let up, it tilts into overwrought self-parody.
Dancer in the Dark resonates as strongly as it does because Bjork gives every ounce of herself in this performance. She was originally just going to write songs but von Trier chased her for a year to convince her to also star as the lead. There are moments of awkwardness where it feels like maybe she’s confused in the scene with what her lines are supposed to be, but then her lack of polish is revealed for its true strength. It’s a deeply, deeply felt performance, stunning in how raw and empathetic she gets, subsuming herself into the character and her tribulations. You don’t see the craft so much here as you do sheer, undiluted passion and ferocious naturalism. She doesn’t hold anything back and gives the best performance in any von Trier movie. In my mind, she had been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar that year but this was not the case; she was only nominated for Best Original Song (“I’ve Seen It All”) where she wore her famous swan dress that became a go-to punchline. She was, and continues to be, an eclectic artist and a really weird person, but man could she be a tremendous actress given the right circumstances. It’s a shame that von Trier’s sadistic directing style lead her to quit the entire profession.
Looking back on my original review, I remember seeing Dancer in the Dark with my freshman pal Kat Lewis, who was just the biggest Bjork fan you could find in all of Ohio in 2000. We were both floored by the movie, and Bjork, and cited it as uniformly brilliant. With twenty years of distance, I can say some of the ironic commentary of undercutting musical escapism feels too easy now, seeking credit for daring to ask, “Hey, what if musicals weren’t so happy, huh?” It’s still a worthwhile subversion to explore but simply presenting it as a subversion isn’t enough for a satisfying thematic focus. It’s funny that the moments that stood out to me as an 18-year-old, like Catherine Deneuve dancing her fingers on Selma’s palm to communicate the onscreen dance routine she can no longer see, are the same ones that stood out to me as a 38-year-old. Good writing will still make itself known and felt. There’s plenty to admire and, paradoxically, enjoy about such a depressing movie, but von Trier’s inability to self-edit and hold back his condemnation of humanity is what truly oppresses his movie.
Re-View Grade: B
Delightfully droll and surprisingly poignant, An American Pickle is a light-hearted fable elevated by a terrific dual performance from Seth Rogen. He plays Herschel Greenbaum (Rogen), an immigrant from Easter Europe seeking a new life with his pregnant wife Sarah (Sarah Snook). Due to an accident at the pickle factory, Herschel is locked in a vat and kept in stasis for 100 years, brined for the future. His only living relative is a great-grandson, Ben (Rogen), a struggling app developer who is equal parts fascinated and annoyed by his long-lost family member. Right away I knew this was a movie with its sense of tone locked firmly in place. The opening few minutes establish the heightened, comically depressing life in the Old Country (“Her parents murdered by Cossacks. My parents murdered by Cossacks!”) and courtship where Sarah dreams of being rich enough to own her own gravestone. Then after Herschel is resurrected and the news media is obviously doubtful, a doctor explains and the narration goes, “A doctor explains. It is good. Everyone accepts,” and the same doubtful reporters now nod in approval. The movie knows its ridiculous but asking you to simply go along. By then I knew this was the movie for me. The first half of this relatively brisk comedy is where it’s at its best. Rogen does an exceptional job portraying Herschel, a man out of time trying to reconcile the life and loved ones lost. There are genuinely emotional moments that affected me, and Rogen doesn’t even try to undercut them with a wink or a nod. Beyond the technical ingenuity of playing identical roles in the same space, Rogen imbues each Greenbaum as a distinct character. Herschel is easily the more compelling character and Ben can be quite annoying, especially in the latter half as he tries to sabotage his great-grandfather through a series of petty recriminations. The last half hour can become a bit too episodic, repeating the escalating family feud without feeling like we’re getting much further narratively. It feels like a series of shorts more than a sustained storyline, like the first half. Yet I laughed repeatedly from writer Simon Rich’s (Miracle Workers) clever and aloof storytelling voice. This is a first-caliber chuckler of a movie, with a few hearty guffaws here and there. Top it off with a surprising veneer of emotional reflection and a fabulous performance from Rogen in comedy and drama, and I would cite An American Pickle as one of the more charming, diverting, and enjoyable comedies of the year. In a pandemic-ravaged year of anxiety, we need a little sweetness with a dash of tart, and that’s what Pickle packs.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Artemis Fowl is a popular children’s’ book series that has scores of fans who have been anticipating a film adaptation, but I have to hope they expected more than this. The Artemis Fowl movie, directed by Kenneth Branagh (Murder on the Orient Express), became a casualty of the Disney purchase of Fox studios, and in the wake of COVID-19 Disney decided to drop Branagh’s film straight to its streaming service and delay this pain no longer. The critical reception has been scathing and honestly it was the one thing that piqued my curiosity to even watch Artemis Fowl.
We follow young Artemis Fowl Jr. (Ferdia Shaw), a rich genius whose father (Colin Farrell) is rumored to be a notorious art thief. Dear old missing dad would fill his young son’s head with stories of magical creatures from other worlds that he would assist. One day, Artemis gets a cryptic message that his father has been kidnapped by a mysterious figure (by an un-credited Hong Chau, of my). If Artemis cannot find the “Acculas” then his father will be killed. Artemis Junior teams up with his martial arts expert butler, named Butler (Nonso Anozie), to capture a fairy, the chip-on-her-shoulder recruit Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), and hold her hostage. This leads to attempted incursions from the fairy police, led by Commander Root (Judi Dench) and a kleptomaniac dwarf, Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad). The battle rages through the Fowl mansion all while threatening to expose the magical realm to the human world.
The only way I can better comprehend where Artemis Fowl goes wrong is simply to begin listing those erroneous elements and try and better make sense of the head-scratching decision-making.
1) Speaking voices. This one is immediately regrettable and so obviously a mistake that it boggles my mind that Branagh and his crew signed off. Why oh why would you task Gad (Frozen 2) with imitating the gravelly Batman-esque voice of Christian Bale? Why hire Gad if you’re asking him to adopt this distracting and unfamiliar voice? Even beyond that, why oh why would you ever have this gravelly growl serve as narration for the entire movie? Listening to this voice is painful and it made me pity Gad, though he alone is not the only victim of bad vocal choices. There’s also Dench, already reeling from the stink of Cats, doing her best as the leader of the fairies or leprechauns, I cannot tell the difference, and she too has a voice that sounds like she’s been smoking two packs of cigarettes a day for life. It’s such an unpleasant voice and it doesn’t make either character seem more imposing. It just made me feel even sorrier for two actors that I was already feeling sorry for over their participation in this.
2) Lazy plotting. I had to ask my pal Alex Knerem some questions regarding whether or not what I saw on my screen was close to what was originally on the page. Apparently, the lazy plotting is ripped right from the book and not a result, as I theorized, of being more budget conscious. The entire story involves Artemis holding a fairy hostage and then just waiting for different waves of different magical creatures to come to him. Imagine discovering a new world of supernatural fantasy creatures with unique powers and unique worlds, and all you do is wait in your mansion for those creatures to come to you. It becomes a siege thriller. It’s such a dull starting point, and it’s not even like Artemis Fowl’s cause is righteous. According to Alex again, the main character of the first book isn’t Artemis but his fairy captive. Alex said, “The first book was billed as Die Hard for kids and Artemis is Hans Gruber.” And that sentence blew my mind. Why should I care about the bratty version of Hans Gruber? The plotting of Artemis Fowl is strangely unimaginative because it’s just one group trying to get inside after another, and ultimately once the location of the magic McGuffin is revealed, it makes even more of the plot feel lazy.
3) The dialogue. The pacing of how people speak to one another is simply jarring and unnatural. There is nary a breath in between lines, and so a conversation feels like every person in a rush to say their next line before their partner finishes. It becomes exhausting to watch and confounding given the movie’s running time of only 90 minutes. Could they not have afforded a few seconds here and there in between lines of dialogue? Beyond the breathless delivery, the dialogue itself is so powerfully expositional that it becomes downright painful to endure. In any fantasy movie, there’s going to be a learning curve to make your movie accessible to a new audience. Some explanation is a given, though it’s best to learn as needed and through as many visual actions as you can (show, don’t tell). With Artemis Fowl, the characters are constantly talking at one another, not with them, and they’re just vomiting exposition. Here is a sample: “Beechwood Short used his magic to steal the Acculas from us, which need I remind you, is the most precious artifact in our civilization. The Acculas was stolen on your watch, he has put our entire people in danger, disappeared, and in my book that’s a traitor.” Woof. Then there’s the redundant talk of the Acculas, but for what it does, it doesn’t exactly seem worthy of lore considering we already have creatures from various worlds traveling to and from other magic realms.
4) The special effects. For a fantasy adventure, the special effects aren’t really that bad though unexceptional. However, there is one nightmare-inducing exception. Mulch is an expert digger and part of his process is literally unhinging his jaw and stretching his mouth to far wider than would be otherwise advised. It is well and truly horrifying, and this is a movie intended for children. How many of them will be forever haunted by the image of Gad extending his jaw, then reaching his arm deep inside his own throat, and retrieving a stored keepsake?
5) The world itself. If you’re going to drop me in a new world, you better make it interesting and worthy of further exploration, and Artemis Fowl doesn’t do this whatsoever. If you want your audience to be hungry for future adventures then you better make this new world charming and well-realized. Artemis Fowl has the equivalent of “magic cops” with its fairies and that’s about all we get as far as an alternate world of wonders. They have laser guns and flying ships, which begs the question whether flying creatures need themselves flying machines, and a judicial system we get a brief glimpse of thanks to that scamp Mulch being sentenced to hundreds of years of hard time for his misdeeds. Mulch is also derided for being a “tall dwarf” and others call him out for not being a “real dwarf,” which makes me wonder if this is some colorism social commentary (I doubt it). The movie ends with the promise of exploring more worlds and meeting new species of creatures but I have zero interest in continuing any of this. The world relies too superficially on the basics of fantasy lore without offering its own personal spin. Imagine just reading a story that said, “And then fairies showed up, and then dwarves, plus a troll. And then it all worked out in the end.” There is nothing special here to separate itself.
6) The character. Lastly, I was not charmed by any of these characters nor did I find them remotely interesting. The relationship between Artemis and his butler was boring, his relationship with his know-everything father was boring, even Artemis himself is a boring figure, a smug child who thinks he’s better and smarter than everyone else in the room. Mulch is more annoying than comically disarming. Holly Short has her gumption to prove herself and clear her maligned father’s name, but she too lacks the development beyond her initial description. None of these characters have anything approaching an arc. I don’t want to spend any more time with these characters on any further adventures because they’re not charming, they’re not funny, they’re not complicated, and they’re not compelling.
Artemis Fowl is a bad movie and oddly, perhaps even to its credit, seems confident about being a bad movie. Why else impose such a terrible speaking voice for Dame Judi Dench? It’s reminiscent of that mid-2000s period where every studio was chasing their own Harry Potter and snatching whatever Y.A. Chosen One fantasy adventure I.P. they could find. It’s the kind of story that seems to just been importing elements from other derivative sources, becoming a derivation from a derivation, a copy of a copy, and losing any sense of identity. Disney was right to banish this.
Nate’s Grade: D+
I was not a big fan of writer/director Benh Zeitlin’s first movie, 2012’s indie darling and surprise Oscar contender, Beasts of the Southern Wild. Some choice highlights from my mixed review include: “This movie is awash in all sorts of tones and storylines, failing to cohesively gel together or form some kind of meaningful message…. [it] offers half-formed ideas, strange, conflicting imagery, and characters that are rather thinly written and barely register… This is just a swampy mess of a movie, one that sinks under the weight of its own pretensions. It’s admirable from a technical standpoint but, as a movie, Beasts of the Southern Wild is an exercise in eclectic indie navel-gazing.” So as you can see, I wasn’t exactly heartbroken that Zeitlin took eight years for his follow-up, Wendy, a loose reinterpretation of the Peter Pan story. It has many of the same flaws as Beasts and not enough of its few virtues, which means Wendy is its own lost movie experience.
We follow a group of children from a working-class diner waitress in small-town Louisiana. They watch the trains speed by on the neighboring tracks and dream of far-off adventures. Wendy (Devin France) and her two younger twin brothers (Gage and Gavin Naqui) sneak off one night onto a passing train and meet Peter (Yashua Mack), a boy who promises to guide them to a magical island where they will never grow old as long as they believe in Mother, the spirit of the island and embodied as a giant glowing fish. Wendy enjoys the freedom but worries if she’ll ever see her mother again and if this extended excursion is worth that level of sacrifice.
Maybe I’m just going through Peter Pan fatigue or maybe this latest variation on the mythology of J.M. Barrie just failed to provide any really thorough message, theme, or entry point of interest for me. Wendy seems to be going for whimsy and flights of fancy, once again attaching its perspective to that of children escaping into the realm of fantasy as a means of avoiding the hardships of their impoverished lives and what it means to be a working stiff (one child in the opening runs away at the prospect of becoming “a mop and broom man”). It’s meant to be diverting but it’s never really that exciting or involving, tapping into a wellspring of awe. There’s a beautifully idyllic island and a volcano, and of course our magic fish, but there aren’t nearly enough genuine magical elements to convey that desired whimsy. The freedom of a life without adults seems less free when there’s less to do. Much of the movie feels closer to The Florida Project where a group of poor kids are playing around junk to keep from being bored. This Neverland universe feels very limited as far as what can be done. They run around, they pretend, there are even some decrepit buildings, but what else? There isn’t really a society here in concert with our lost children and former lost children. It’s a pretty empty island retreat.
Perhaps that was Zeitlin’s goal, to strip away the romanticized notions we attach to forever staying young, chasing the fleeting feeling of the past while ignoring the present and adulthood, but this more critical theme doesn’t come across thoroughly either. There is one interesting aspect of the island’s unexplained magic and that is the older adults are former lost boys and girls who lost faith in Mother, thus activating their advanced aging and expulsion from Peter’s posse. I like the idea that the future villainous pirates of a Neverland are former lost boys; it gives an interesting personal dynamic for Peter. These adults, though, want to go back to being young again and they are convinced that killing Mother will achieve this, and it doesn’t go as planned. The deconstruction of fantasy with real violence doesn’t work because the consequences aren’t at the same level of realism. A child, in an effort to avoid growing old, makes a drastic decision, but the brushed-off aftermath makes the insertion of the harsher violence feel perfunctory. Peter is portrayed as an idealist leader one moment and ignorant and selfish the next, even with Wendy scolding him that there’s nothing wrong with growing up and becoming an adult, despite the mixed message of the former lost boys. The movie concludes with a goofy sing-a-long for magic resolution purposes that is played so earnestly that it makes it hard for me to believe Zeitlin was intending to be too critical of his magical world.
Is Wendy about rejecting adulthood or the unavoidable perils of rejecting adulthood? I cannot say because the themes are so muddled with such a precious lack of significant storytelling content. Once again, a Zeitlin film feels like an improvised series of redundant scenes, where we watch kids play fight, we watch kids yell at one another, we watch kids run, we watch kids swim, all with headache-inducing handheld camerawork, but do we get to know these kids on a deeper level where they feel like people rather than figures? The plot of Wendy, written by Zeitlin and his sister Eliza, is very unclear about the rules of its magical world, which makes for a hard time to understand why anything is really happening. It also makes the movie less fun to experience because we don’t get to play along with the discovery of a fantasy world, its new parameters, and how we can develop and complicate them (not that there’s really much to discover; Neverland gets old quickly). This is definitely a movie that’s meant to convey more in feeling and inference, so the plot beats are very inconsequential outside of a few key movements. I didn’t find myself caring about any of the kids and their general well-being, even after they take it upon themselves to make some rash medical decisions. Wendy is our best realized character as she at least seems conflicted about the appeal and consequences of staying young indefinitely. The others are easily replaceable.
Wendy isn’t a bad movie and it’s clearly a very personally designed project from Zeitlin given the years of preparation. It has consistently gorgeous photography by Sturla Brandth Grovlen, the first film production shot on location on Montserrat island, and the score by Dan Romer (Maniac, Atypical) excels at the big swooning, churning melodies that crescendo into triumphant bliss. But even these positive technical qualities can only distract you momentarily from the missing center of Wendy, the story and characters and themes and discernible messages. I’m not asking for my entertainment to spoon-feed me what to think and feel from my art, but having a consistent message, or even an accessible entry point to decode and debate the art would help, as would engaging characters and a plot that felt more meaningful than just another disposable color to blend into a murky abstract mess of childhood whimsy, magic realism, and coming-of-age themes. A little of Wendy goes a long way, and two hours gets quite tedious. I just cannot foresee people falling under the spell of this movie. I wrote that Beasts had “half-formed ideas, strange, conflicting imagery, and characters that are rather thinly written and barely register,” and this much is also true with Wendy. I also wrote that Beasts was “an exercise in eclectic indie navel-gazing,” and this much is also true with Wendy. Maybe I’m just not the right fit for a Benh Zeitlin film. This is two hours of kids running around on an island without supervision and the occasional Peter Pan element thrown in. Maybe that sounds like a grand retreat as a viewer but it made me happy to be an adult and leave.
Nate’s Grade: C
In a modern fantasy suburbia, Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland) and older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) have been gifted with a magic staff from their long-departed father. Barley was only a young child when their father died, and Ian never knew him, and now both are granted an opportunity via magic to bring their dear old man back for one more day. The magic spell is interrupted and, as a result, only one half of their father is brought back to life, the lower half, chiefly his legs. The boys must travel on an epic quest in order to bring the rest of their father back to life before all of him disappears again.
Onward is the first time Pixar has ventured into a fantasy realm and the mixture of the modern with the high-fantasy setting allows for some fun juxtaposition. The teenage worries about fitting in, testing your boundaries, and finding out your sense of self can be very relatable, even in a world of trolls and elves. I enjoyed the combative and compassionate brotherly dynamic between Ian and Barley, and Holland (Spider-Man: Far From Home) and Pratt (Avengers: Endgame) are terrific together and really do feel like feuding family members. Their high energy performances translate well to animation. The Pixar creative team does enough to provide little distinguishing character touches for both, enough to provide some extra shading so they don’t quite feel like cartoon versions of their more famous Marvel counterparts. Ian is all awkward and lacking in confidence whereas Barley is overloaded with self-confidence and an unshakable sense of arrested development. I enjoyed the small number of memories relating to their father that Barley holds onto, and I enjoyed how Ian listens to a brief, ordinary test recording of his father on a cassette tape and creates a dialogue between father and son. It’s such a sweet moment that also demonstrates Ian’s ache. I enjoyed how the screenplay connects the external to the internal, namely the obstacles on this quest to the personal trials for Ian and Barley. It allows more meaningful payoffs and more rewarding character growth for our duo. I enjoyed spending time with both boys and was glad their quest was more about them than magical ephemera.
Amazingly, what works best in this movie is its emotional core, which sounds slightly bizarre considering it’s a road trip with a pair of legs. As Onward progresses and settles down with its better honed second half, it puts more emphasis on the relationship between the brothers, their hopes and worries for one another, their sacrifices and shames, and ultimately it becomes a movie about two boys trying to find closure with the memory of their dearly departed dad. The genuine emotion of the brothers is enough to pave over most of the undeveloped elements of the world and storytelling (more on that below). I would have thought, going in, that Onward would present a so-so story with an intriguing world of possibility. I’m surprised that my experience was the exact opposite. The story and central relationships are what kept me going, and it’s what ultimately earned some teary eyed responses from me late in the movie. The topic of seeking closure is a personal one for me and something I value highly, so it was very easy for me to plug my own yearning and vulnerability into these characters. They’re going through all this dangerous trouble not just to see their departed father one last time but also to say goodbye, and that got me big time. It gave the entire movie a new weight that I wasn’t expecting. Who wouldn’t want another chance to tell a loved one how much they miss and appreciate them?
The whole concept of being stuck with a loved one’s lower torso allowed me many moments of contemplation. First, I wondered what their father must be going through to only experience the world through his legs. It felt limited. How do you communicate to others? The film finds its ways. How do you express emotions simply from a pair of disembodied legs? The film finds its ways. As Ian and Barley drag him along on a zipline leash, I kept thinking about the dad. What is he thinking in this moment? Is he waiting for some kind of comforting confirmation from his sons to tell him where he is and what is happening? I kept thinking how confused he must be. To the filmmakers’ credit, they don’t ever emphasize the potential hell of this half-existence. He’s presented often as a figure of comic relief, especially as his upper torso pile of clothes sloshes around and tumbles off. In a way, the pair of legs reminded me of the visual metaphor of the floating house in 2009’s Up, the manifestation of the protagonist’s heavy grief. They’re tethered to this half-formed memory of their father, unable to fully interact with him and let him go. I was worried that Onward was going to be the Pixar equivalent of Weekend at Bernie’s and it is not.
There are some issues with the movie, nothing major, but enough to make it feel under developed, especially in comparison to the Pixar movies of past. The imagination is there, however, the world-building of this fantasy world is decidedly lacking. There are some cute asides like unicorns as the equivalent of trash-eating raccoons, but as a whole the fantasy world feels underdeveloped to its full potential. There’s a significant story point where the current world has forgotten its magic roots thanks to the ease of technology and its inoculating effects, which seems like a pretty straightforward message for our own lazy world. Again, though, Onward doesn’t dig deeper into this theme or what it could mean for the larger mythology of its own world and its history and the rules governing its magical creatures. I started to wonder whether Pixar could just have set this story anywhere.
Likewise, the supporting characters don’t amount to much and feel like leftovers from earlier drafts where they had richer involvement. The ongoing subplot with their mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) teaming up with the fabled beast-turned small business owner Manticore (Octavia Spencer) offered little other than occasional exposition. The Manticore is supposed to best represent how the new world has traded its culture and history for comforts and safety, but it’s not clearly realized and integrated. My pal Ben Bailey reflected that the Manticore seemed like a one-scene character that the filmmakers didn’t want to drop, and so she was stretched through the rest of the film to diminished returns. The last act has a sudden and arbitrary monster to defeat that feels like the kind of thing expected in these sorts of movies, which is a rarity for Pixar and thus a slight disappointment.
Lastly, much of the humor just doesn’t work. The jokes can be stale, safe, or one-note, like a team of very tiny pixie bikers. It’s often silly without exactly being clever. There’s more fleeting visual humor with the incongruous nature of fantasy in a modern setting. There’s less slapstick than you would think considering one of the main characters lacks a torso. I chuckled a few times but, much like the fantasy setting, felt the humor was kept at an superficial level of thought.
Onward isn’t top-tier Pixar but it’s a solid mid-tier entry, an enjoyable adventure with a resonant emotional core that makes me forgive many of the film’s other aspects that don’t quite work. The brothers are the best part, their interactions are the most interesting, and their heartfelt journey and hopeful desire for closure is what ultimately left me emotionally satisfied. The jokes and world and supporting characters don’t feel as developed, but it hits with its core relationship and its emotional center, so Onward works where it counts the most with its storytelling. Mid-tier Pixar is much like mid-tier pizza — still satisfying and better than a lot of other options.
Nate’s Grade: B+