Under normal, non-pandemic circumstances, this column would probably be covering the new live-action remake of Mulan, once slated to hit theaters at the end of March, or No Time to Die, featuring Daniel Craig’s last scowling appearance as James Bond, which was supposed to be released on April 10. In our reality, neither of those movies is coming out until at least the fall, and for now nothing else is either, and anyway if they did come out nobody would be able to see them. So the trade of movie reviewing is in the same straits as the business of sportswriting or restaurant criticism: The great machine on which we barnacled ourselves has ground to a sudden halt.
But with this difference: Nobody is going to open a slick new restaurant when the only way to feed the paying customers is takeout, but at some point the financial incentives may be strong enough that the 2020 movie slate starts to show up on your computer or television set. Or alternatively, if theaters reopen sooner rather than later, the crowds may still be too small and nervous to create financial hits, and distributors will have no choice but to embrace a dual-release strategy, on streaming and in theaters simultaneously — a strategy that theater chains facing bankruptcy would no longer have the leverage to resist.
The revolutionary implications for the movie business can be considered another time; for today, let’s be solipsistic and consider how this might change the critic’s experience. The dual-release strategy has already been employed by movies that were out before the lockdowns started: The Invisible Man, Emma, Pixar’s Onward, and several others all had a little pre-pandemic time in theaters, but now you can watch them instantly on your TV. I reviewed Emma last issue; I’m reviewing Onward in this column. And I’m quite sure the latter movie played a lot better on my television than it would have had I seen it at the local multiplex.
That’s mostly because of how I watched it: Not perched alertly (well, reasonably so) on a movie seat in the middle of a workday, with a podcast behind me and a column draft up next, but sprawled on the couch among my children at the end of a long day of “homeschooling,” a.k.a. the kind of everyday parental grind from which a movie, any movie, feels like a blessed respite.
And from that vantage point, Onward delivers. It has a clever conceit: It’s set in a world of fantastic creatures, elves and centaurs and cyclopes and flitting fairies, where someone figures out electricity and everyone decides that since technology is so much more reliable than magic, why not just ditch the flaming swords and wizards’ orbs and build the modern suburbs instead? (An establishing shot: two pegacorns fighting over a trashcan on a subdivision curb.) It has a characteristic Pixar plot: some adult stuff about loss and family wrapped around a quest narrative, as two elf brothers — Ian and Barley, voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt — rediscover the archaic joy of questing in an effort to cast a spell their late father left them that would let him see them for one day as adults. And it has enough quips and patter to carry you between the action scenes, most of them courtesy of Pratt’s Barley, an ebullient van-driving Dungeons and Dragons nerd who’s desperate to bring back his world’s lost magic.
For killing 100 minutes on the couch with your kids, that’s a pretty solid run of strengths — with a bonus added for the fact that all three of our beloved offspring requested a repeat viewing the next day, instead of tearing one another apart as usual arguing over what to watch.
But I’m pretty sure that if I’d been watching Onward in the darkness of the theater, I would have walked away thinking “B-minus” instead of “A-minus,” because I would have had more time and more reasons to think about all the ways it’s rushed and undercooked — stealing notes and beats and plot devices from better Pixar movies, returning to the same jokes in its world-building instead of seeking complexity or depth, using the boys’ literally half-present father (his legs return without his body) mostly for sight gags before the conclusion lays the half-earned sentiment on thick.
Above all, I would have been more irritated by the way a movie that’s supposedly all about restoring the enchantments of Faerie to a disenchanted world never really tries to capture anything of the genuinely otherworldly character of magic, the numinous and perilous feelings that should be stirred when the hollow hills open and the impossible comes knocking. Instead, the idea of fantasy in Onward belongs to the clichés (not even the reality) of D&D role-playing, in which characters with silly names wield arbitrary magics chasing a supernatural MacGuffin. It’s a story of magic returning or reawakening, of materialism collapsing under supernatural pressure, that makes the magical world feel like an amusing video game scripted by someone who maybe read a Lord of the Rings knockoff, once.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, my kids are yelling and I’m going to see if they’ll watch it one more time.
This article appears as “Re-Enchanting the Suburbs” in the May 4, 2020, print edition of National Review.
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