Tag: dan scanlon

Onward


Onward (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

Dan Scanlon’s “Onward” is what it must be like if Pixar shed away the majority of its convincing rollercoaster of human emotions and taken on the more action-oriented Dreamworks mantra wherein the animation’s color and movement take precedence over telling a genuinely compelling story. This tale about two brothers who get a chance to spend one more day with their deceased father should have been far more emotional and worthy of contemplation. Instead, it is busy, loud, constantly on the move. It stops only when it is time to manipulate the audience into feeling something sad. I didn’t buy it at all.

I must admit I enjoyed looking at the animation initially. This marks the first time that Pixar employs fantasy elements—unicorns, trolls, elves, and the like—while mixing the old with modern touches—cars, cell phones, toaster ovens. It is fun to note the disparities between the past and present, especially since the story’s universe was once rooted upon magic. But because technology is more convenient than magic, it completely changed the creatures’ way of life over time. There are numerous amusing visual jokes that do not attract attention; they are simply there to be appreciated should the viewer bother to look a little closer.

But in Pixar films, being beautiful visually is not enough to warrant a recommendation. It must have a strong heart at its center and it must be explored fully. I think the overall appeal is lost on me because I was never convinced that Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) are actually brothers in conflict. Yes, they are presented as nearly opposites in physicality, personality, and interests, but the screenplay by Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, and Keith Bunin fails to hone in on the complexities of being siblings who are several years apart.

If it did, it would have underscored that although they are different in many ways, these differences may actually complement one another at times. Or that their similarities are so potent, that these superficial differences may be negligible in the long run. Or both. Instead—observe carefully during the first fifteen minutes or so—we are inundated with dialogue that do not say much, slapstick and action that lead nowhere, and boring, barren busyness. And when the material does slow down eventually, note on how it relies on focusing on sad-looking Ian as he contemplates the father he’s never had. I found the formula to be obvious and mechanical.

Ian and Barley’s journey to restore their father’s body is uninteresting for the most part. Their quest involves learning how to cast and control magic, meeting curious creatures, gathering cryptic clues and making sense of them, and being thrown into moments of peril—but there is nothing particularly compelling about the journey. The reason is because the material fails to provide an answer to the question of why Ian and Barley are best suited to take on this quest. They simply… are. I suppose it is due to Ian having a natural talent for magic and Barley possessing knowledge about how mythic quests work (he’s a big fan of Dungeons & Dragons-style board games). But what else?

“Onward” may be intended for children, but Pixar has proven in the past that a movie can be targeted for kids—even very young kids—and still be savagely smart, emotionally true and complex, and wielding an intoxicating sense of adventure. This is why movies like “WALL-E,” “Toy Story 3,” and “Finding Nemo” (to name only a few) are modern classics. And conversely, movies like “Onward,” “Brave,” and all the “Cars” films feel like mere afterthoughts, existing solely to pass the time. We deserve better.

Monsters University


Monsters University (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

If the back half of “Monsters University,” directed by Dan Scanlon, where Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal) and James P. Sullivan (John Goodman) take a detour from their world and into a foreign universe, had been expanded and explored, it might have turned out to be more than just a superficially enjoyable, family-friendly movie and delivered something truly memorable. Some of these later scenes are so strong, I wondered how it would be like if Pixar made a genuinely creepy or scary film for kids, channeling the same aura as Gil Kenan’s underrated “Monster House.”

Gone is the warm hug of jazz that gave Pete Docter’s “Monsters, Inc.” a special life force. Instead, and perhaps more appropriately, marching band tunes are employed to get us stoked for one-eyed Mike’s first year in the university where he plans to major in Scaring. These tunes also conjure up excitement for the Scare Games, founded by Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), which will determine the best sorority or fraternity on campus. According to her, a monster is defined only by his or her ability to scare. A monster that is incapable of it is an embarrassment. It is a shame that the screenplay does not do much with Hardscrabble because she has such a presence, an air of dour authority. She dares her students to surprise her, but not once she is able to surprise me.

There is more to the picture than a series of challenges. While they are highly amusing to sit through, especially the first challenge involving poisonous urchins, it also has easily digestible messages about teamwork, friendship, and acceptance that children should learn (and adults should know by now). And because this is a comedy, it is expected that the fraternity that Mike and Sulley join is composed of outcasts who are anything but scary: a middle-aged salesman (Joel Murray), two heads sharing the same body (Sean Hayes, Dave Foley), a long-legged purple philosopher (Charlie Day), and a multi-eyed plump youngster who lives with his mom (Peter Sohn). Each member of the group is given time to shine in and outside the games.

But the real gem is the lesson about knowing one’s limitations. Ever since he was a child, Mike has wanted to become a scarer. However, he simply does not have the physicality for it, not like Sully or the meatheads in Roar Omega Roar, but he is determined to prove everybody wrong. So, he turns to books and hopes that by knowing a lot, somehow it will make up for what he lacks.

This should have been at the forefront more often so that there is a constant build-up of the dramatic core. And yet since the lesson might be difficult to swallow, especially for its target audience, at times the screenplay uses cuteness and easy jokes as crutches when the mood gets too heavy. This frustrated me. It is like being a handed the lollipop when I really want is the steak. With so many children who have and are being led to believe that they are “special” and that they can become “anything” they want to be as long they “put their minds” into it, a point about being aware of one’s limitations is, I think, pretty daring.

The animation is first-class. Every square inch of space seems to glisten, the creatures command a defined set of characteristics (as well as physical gags to go along with them), and scenes that require howling energy to make high velocity movements stand out are mesmerizing. But “Monsters University,” based on the screenplay by Dan Scanlon, Daniel Gerson, and Robert L. Baird, lacks a moving story and the willingness to go all the way with whatever is needed to be communicated. It has the character for it–idealistic, strong-willed Mike Wazowski–but not a clever enough screenplay to camouflage the pill among the candy and trust that the ruse will work.