Pixar's new adventure comedy Onward is about fathers and sons, about big and little brothers, about facing fears and taking risks and finding gratitude in the face of loss. It's also about as much fun as I've had at the movies in months. The muted, even meh responses the film has been generating from many reviewers – especially given the studio's recent onslaught of sequels – is truly baffling to me, because writer/director Dan Scanlon's animated outing seems to deliver everything we traditionally revere Pixar for: deep imagination and originality, thematic richness, laugh-out-loud wit, emotional annihilation. When the end credits rolled at my screening, there were a few seconds of what felt like grateful silence before a woman a few rows behind me said, “That. Was. Awesome.” And it absolutely was.
Set in a world much like our own, albeit one populated with elves, sprites, and other mythological beings in place of humans (and dragons and unicorns, respectively, substituting for puppies and raccoons), Onward takes a complicated route to a simple premise. On the morning of his sixteenth birthday, our elf protagonist Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) is determined to overcome his shyness and inability to stand up for himself – anxieties he at least partly attributes to having grown up without a father, the man (Kyle Bornheimer) having passed away before Ian was born. The kid does have a loving mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), as well as a friendly and phenomenally uncool older brother (Chris Pratt's Barley) who's currently reveling in what their mother deems “the longest gap year ever.” Yet the skinny, socially awkward Ian considers himself in desperate need of his father, and actually gets the chance to meet him when the newly driving-age elf receives a magical tree-branch staff – a gift from Dad that Mom kept hidden for 16 years – with the power to bring the man back to life, but only for a day.
If you know Onward's hook, you know what happens next: The magic spell goes half-right. Instead of fully resurrecting their father, Ian and Barley accidentally resurrect him only from the waist down, with the dad they longed for now just a sentient pair of slacks, shoes, and purple socks. The rest of the movie consequently becomes a beat-the-clock quest as the elves and their half-dad, taking off in Barley's profoundly embarrassing van, hunt for a rare gem that will complete the transformation; it's kind of like Lord of the Rings if Gollum's ring was the corpse from Weekend at Bernie's. (Much of the humor, a bit of it too repetitive, comes from the boys' attempts to make Dad's lower torso resemble a whole, and wholly alive, elf.) This is a perfectly solid adventure-comedy concept, and Onward's script – co-written by Keith Bunin and Jason Headley – finds no end of amusement in its peripherals, from the lair of the fabled manticore (Octavia Spencer) turning out to be a noisy family restaurant to the pack of troublemaking bikers who each stand less than a foot tall. But the cleverness and hilarity almost wind up beside the point, because as with most of Pixar's finest feature-length accomplishments, what really sells the film is its supreme – and here, utterly surprising – depth of feeling.
On more than a few occasions at my screening, I found myself muttering “ni-i-ice” under my breath, both delighted and impressed that Scanlon and company produced so many satisfying payoffs to narrative details planted much earlier. Ian overcoming his paralyzing fear of freeway driving was an especially graceful (if comically frenzied) callback, as were the many instances in which Barley's nerdiness – he's like a Sam Gamgee who thinks he's Indiana Jones – leads to momentary triumph. Yet while the elves' quest is purportedly about Ian finally meeting his dad, you gradually realize that it's actually about him finally meeting Barley – at least the Barley who's an endlessly supportive, encouraging older brother, and not the one who makes Ian want to hide his face in shame. The vocal casting of Holland and Pratt was a shrewdly inspired decision, given that the actors have an easy, familiar repartee that suggests a lifetime of squabbling Avenger-hood. But you also hear specific echoes of Spider-Man's teen timidity and Star Lord's comic bravado, and their roles here take wonderful advantage of the natural earnestness, eagerness, and guilelessness that stand as Holland's and Pratt's most winning performance qualities.
Onward features lovely scenes of the elves bonding with their father's lower half, be it through a classically goofy dad dance or merely the image of the older elf's foot seeking out the feet of his sons – touching connections made through light taps on shoes. (As he's without ears and a mouth, it's the only way Pop can communicate.) Scanlon's film, though, is primarily about brotherly love, and as that realization slowly dawns on you, and as the realization of that love slowly dawns on Ian, it somehow feels both inevitable and completely unforeseen. As usual with Pixar releases, the finale boasts a glorious action spectacle, this one showcasing a heroically brave mom and an enormous makeshift dragon that must be seen to be believed. But the true finale, also as with most Pixars, comes when the movie casually rips your heart to shreds, with the find-the-hidden-gem plotline wrapping up in ways you don't anticipate, and the planned-for reunion between father and sons resolving itself in a manner that convention, particularly Disney convention, wouldn't lead you to expect. Smiling and wiping away tears as that woman behind me praised its awesomeness, I left Onward knowing I'd just experienced my favorite Pixar since 2015's Inside Out … and I haven't even mentioned Tracey Ullman's grizzled pawn-shop owner, or the sublime fate of Barley's van, or the delicious joke of the film's title. Just see it and enjoy. Onward ya go.
No one needs to reinvent the wheel, and no one needs to reinvent Jane Austen's 1815 comedy of manners Emma, either; it rolls along perfectly just as it is. So if you were one of those viewers who chafed at the chronological leapfrogging that Greta Gerwig employed for her inventive re-imagining of Little Women, you may be ecstatic to learn that Austen's novel has been left almost completely intact in the marvelous new adaptation Emma. – this despite the addition of a period to the title (because it's a period film, I guess), and despite there being more blood and nudity than the author envisioned. The blood is just a bit of a nosebleed, and the nudity is a quick early flash of a man's posterior, but I suppose the squeamish should be warned nonetheless.
Otherwise, director Autumn de Wilde's and screenwriter Eleanor Catton's rendition unfolds exactly as you expect it to, at least once you accept the pastel color schemes that make the movie look like it's taking place in the confectionery shop at Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel. Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy), at 21, is just as handsome, clever, and rich as Austen decreed, and just as terrible a matchmaker, tinkering with the romantic life of her orphaned friend Harriet (Mia Goth) while remaining blithely unaware of the damage she's inflicting. George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) is just as stalwart and sensible, generally relishing – although not always – his many, many opportunities to put Emma in her place (while, of course, also falling in love with her). In truth, everyone in this stunningly well-cast entertainment appears to have been lifted directly, and with enormous love, from the pages of Austen: Bill Nighy's depressed hypochondriac Mr. Woodhouse; Rupert Graves' jovial Mr. Weston; Gemma Whelan's beatifically maternal Mrs. Weston; Callum Turner's vain, untrustworthy Frank Churchill; Amber Anderson's unreadable Jane Fairfax; Josh O'Connor's unctuous vicar Mr. Elton; Tanya Reynolds' pinched and fussy Mrs. Elton; Miranda Hart's well-meaning chatterbox Miss Bates.
If you're a fan of Austen's book, and I'm not sure I'd want to meet anyone who read it and isn't, the close-to-ridiculous perfection of this ensemble would be more than enough reason to catch the movie. And working from Catton's elegant script, de Wilde not only wrests comedy out of every conceivable avenue (with Mr. Woodhouse's obsession over staying warm a superbly sustained running gag), but brings startling pathos to sequences you may feel you know all too well: Knightley “rescuing” Harriet during a posh evening out; Harriet reacting to the news that it isn't she whom Knightley loves; Emma cruelly demolishing Miss Bates with a few ill-chosen words. (In a field of equals, Hart briefly earns best-in-show honors for Miss Bates' quietly devastated reaction to the offense.) The story's central romance, meanwhile, is as intoxicatingly delayed and dreamy as you could ever want, with the ideally matched Taylor-Joy and Flynn creating metaphoric fireworks you can practically see, especially during their one long, erotically charged dance together. I greatly enjoyed 1996's Emma with Gwyneth Paltrow, and 1995's update Clueless with Alicia Silverstone, and the 2009 miniseries with Romola Garai. This Emma., period attached, is still the version I adore most. At least until the next one.
THE WAY BACK
I discreetly wept a couple of times during the final 15 minutes of Onward, and came close to audible, guttural sobs on several occasions in Emma. (Memories of Harriet's and Miss Bates' heartbreak, and even Knightley's, are making me well up this very moment.) Consequently, as I was already put through the emotional wringer twice, I presumed I'd be a bawling wreck throughout the third release I caught this past Friday: The Way Back, which has the nerve to be a conquering-addiction drama and an inspirational sports flick. Given a genre blend like that, I half-expected to need a box of tissues merely to make it through the opening credits. Yet despite being a really easy crier at the movies, I didn't get misty-eyed even once at this Ben Affleck showcase, and hardly for the film's lack of trying. While writer/director Gavin O'Connor and co-screenwriter Brad Ingelsby dutifully hit all the prescribed emotional buttons, none of them appears to be functioning properly, and what results is something so curiously unmoving that it's almost anti-moving – less a tearjerker than a 105-minute PowerPoint presentation on how to make a tearjerker, but without accompanying tears.
After being recruited as his alma mater's new head coach, former high-school-basketball sensation turned severe alcoholic Jack Cunningham embarks on the road to recovery while turning a team of last-place misfits into champions. If “male weepie” had its own entry in Webster's, that synopsis might very well be the phrase's definition. Yet despite O'Connor's familiarity with uplifting sports dramas that employ alcohol addiction as a major plot point, given that he also helmed 2011's vastly superior Warrior, this new film manages to bungle just about everything. Yes, watching a group of directionless youths become winners can be grandly emotional and thrilling. But not when we're given absolutely no reason to care about the players, and The Way Back gives so little attention to its high-school athletes – with only one receiving anything close to a subplot (and it's barely that) – that their meteoric rise means nothing; by the time The Big Game finally transpires, the basketball tyros have been made so abjectly colorless that there's nothing Big about it. And although Affleck gives a solid performance, O'Connor and Ingelsby don't appear to have the foggiest idea of what makes Jack tick, nor do they appear interested in learning.
This is a guy who ends every night fall-down drunk and has a beer stationed in his shower caddy every morning. Yet the moment Jack accepts the coaching position, we're meant to believe that he's able to quit drinking cold turkey. What was that first night without a drink like? What was that first shower like? Are the man's profane, screaming fits from the gymnasium sidelines symptoms of withdrawal, or is Jack just your standard-issue movie-coach hothead? Did Jack have problems with alcohol even before The Event That Changed His Life Forever, the delayed reveal of which feels like a grossly manipulative cheat? O'Connor does create a strong sense of lower-middle-class atmosphere and does fine work with supporting performers Janina Gavankar, Michaela Watkins, and Al Madrigal. But The Way Back grows increasingly infuriating as it progresses, determined as it is to secure a collective lump in the throat without giving us any legitimate reasons to develop one. By the time the movie ended, maddeningly, with a shot that's employed in its trailers, all the initial goodwill I felt about this increasingly rare Hollywood-studio drama had irrevocably dribbled away.