Disney-Pixar’s “Onward” Movie Review

You are going to catch feels! Disney-Pixar’s Onward is a powerful animated motion picture that will take you on an exciting and emotionally charged journey. There is such a tremendous beauty in the simple storytelling that explores familial relationships through the conduit of a fantastical quest. Onward reminds me of a classic Spielberg-like coming-of-age action-adventure movie with heart. Interestingly, I am reminded of many DreamWorks movies, including How to Train Your Dragon, in the overall look of the movie. It’s almost as if Pixar saw what DreamWorks was doing right, and in a very Apple way, set out to do it better. Onward is what you get when you take the visual design and themes of DreamWorks movies and pair them with a quintessential Pixar story. Much like Coco provided us with a compelling story that would forever change how we view family tradition and history, this movie explores the relationship between brothers on their quest to bring their dad back from the dead for one day. In a day and age in which relationships between brothers or sons and fathers seem to be largely absent from themes in movies, this is a refreshing look at these relationships in a positive, healthy light. While this is an animated motion picture, it is every bit pure cinema as a live-action counterpart. The great Cecil B. DeMille stated, “the greatest art in the world is the art of storytelling,” and Onward is a great story for the whole family! You will encounter joy and warmth in the plot and characters as you set forward and press onward in your adventure along with Ian and Barley. Unlike a typical action-adventure movie, this one does take a little while to get up to speed. But once that second act kicks into gear, you will experience a thrilling good time that will have you laughing and crying in true Pixar fashion.

Two teenage elf brothers, Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) Lightfoot, go on a journey to discover if there is still a little magic left out there, after receiving a mysterious gift from their mother on Ian’s birthday, in order to spend one last day with their father, who died when Barley was little and before Ian was born (IMDb).

Not your usual fantasy movie! While Onward starts out with a voiceover narration providing exposition against the backdrop of a fantastical world of elves, wizards, mythological creatures and more, the prologue lays out the historical piping to provide important context for the modern story that is about to unfold. We are told that the world was once full of magic, but over time, the industrial revolution and invention of technology took the place of magic. Eventually the world simply forgot about its very existence. I love this setup, because it’s a mirror of our own world in which technology has radically altered how we interact with the world around us and even each other. When we rewrite or forget the past, it has a profound impact upon our present and future. I appreciate how this film highlights the importance of not forgetting the past, not forgetting where we came from. Looking to the past, even recent past, can help to shift our focus from ourselves to others. Sometimes we can even find a whole new appreciation of the present by stepping back and realizing the indirect meaning behind actions that have impacted our growth and development. One can even read this as a commentary on art versus commercialization. For the sake of cost and simplicity, much that was once crafted is now churned out on an assembly line. We forget the importance of personal investment of time and energy into everyday elements. Perhaps we can even liken this to film versus digital. Many different ways of reading this analogy!

I often comment in my screenwriting class at the University of Tampa that some of the best movies out there have simple plots and complex characters. For a visualization of what that looks like, think of that little black dress or classic black suit that lives in many of our closets. Those simple outfits can be accessorized in so many different ways to make a lasting statement or impression. There is a beauty in the simplicity. Same with the story in Onward. At its core, this movie is about a quest to find the long lost Phoenix stone in order to bring Ian and Barley’s dad back to life for one day. But along the way, our two central characters encounter conflict after conflict that reveals to us the various layers of our characters. We learn so much about their history, goals, needs, and more in how they each uniquely respond to the same obstacles. Lasting conflict can often be achieved by giving two characters the same goal, but they each have vastly different methods for achieving the goal. This concept is played out over and over again throughout the movie, and it works incredibly well! I also appreciate this movie for just how funny it is! Honestly, this is probably one of Pixar’s funniest movies in a long time! All the action and emotional elements of the Onward are superbly satisfying and work completely in sync, just like all the section of a symphony playing in perfect harmony!

Each and every obstacle that creates conflict between our two brothers moves the story forward; never once do we reach a point in the plot in which we are spinning our figurative wheels. Representing a microcosm of a larger plot structure, each and every scene in a movie is made up of a setup, conflict, and resolution. And the resolution (be it negative or positive) points to the next scene, and the following scene does the very same. Every scene is a piece of the track that points to the end of the movie. With a tight script, Onward is consistently moving us forward to the showdown and realization of this movie. What makes the conflict we witness in the movie all the more relatable is just how common, everyday much of it is. We may be in a world of fantasy, but the problems experienced by the brothers are the same as the ones we experience in real life. Most of us with siblings don’t always get along–certainly in our growing up years, it can be that way–but this movie is a testament to the importance of connecting and appreciating our siblings for what they teach us and how they impact our lives even when we don’t realize it. For those whom may have lost a parent, often times, you can find your parent in the life of your sibling and vice versa. Loving parents leave a legacy in their children.

Visually, the movie is stunning! I love just how “not” Pixar it looks. Ever since Pixar started striving for quasi photorealism, I’ve not been as impressed with the animation. For example, I prefer the look of Toy Story 3 to Toy Story 4. The production design and animation in Onward reminds me of much of what DreamWorks has produced over the years in terms of themes and design. Perhaps DreamWorks will see Onward and think to themselves, “gee, they took a page from our playbook and did it better.” The plot is tighter, the comedy is better developed, and the characters more fleshed out. Essentially, this movie indirectly highlights what is missing in many DreamWorks movies, and that is stronger screenplays. Onward delivers an animation design that is rich with everything that you want to see in a world of fantasy! So many fantastical creatures that feel right at home within their world. And this world feels incredibly believable. In many ways, it looks just like our world in which the modern can be right up next to the ancient, where sometimes historical buildings are at risk for being torn down to make way for something new. Looking across the landscape, you will be delighted at the attention paid to effective world building and the little things that make such a difference.

Don’t think of this as Pixar’s throwaway movie, as some have, this is an outstanding animated motion picture that delivers an engaging adventure paired with an emotional roller coaster that will have you laughing and crying.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in the Tampa area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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“The Current War” historical movie review

When the History Channel comes to cinemas. Despite what the title and tagline suggests, this movie is not electrifying and unfortunately plays off as forgettable Oscar bait. The only difference between this movie and one that you may catch on The History or Discovery Channels is the A-list cast. For students of history or those whom normally seek out and enjoy historical movies, you will most likely find this story interesting if not fascinating. Perhaps nearly as interesting as the historical background of this movie is the story of this movie’s journey from concept to screen. After the collapse of The Weinstein Company, this movie’s fate to never see the distribution was all but sealed. Enter from stage left Executive Producer Martin Scorsese to save this movie. With the backing of Scorsese, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon recut the film to that which he originally intended before Harvey has his way with it (and others in Hollywood). While the details of the plot lack anything truly memorable, and the characters are one-dimensional, where this film shines is in the cinematography and editing. All throughout the movie, the camera becomes a character in and of itself, providing audiences with carefully crafted angles and beautiful tracking shots that attempt to draw us into the story on an intimate level with this cast of legendary inventors and businessmen. Perhaps we would be talking cast too had they been given anything to work with. Ultimately, the screenplay is to blame for this steady but low wattage story of one of the greatest chapters in US history.

Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon)– the greatest inventors of the industrial age — engage in a battle of technology and ideas that will determine whose electrical system will power the new century. Backed by J.P. Morgan, Edison dazzles the world by lighting Manhattan. But Westinghouse, aided by Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), sees fatal flaws in Edison’s direct current design. Westinghouse and Tesla bet everything on risky and dangerous alternating current. (IMDb)

Upon watching this movie, it is clear that screenwriter Michael Mitnick forgot the cardinal rule of composing a well-developed screenplay with visual dimension: dramatize don’t tell (or simply show). Everything needed for a great screenplay is here: two central characters that equally function as the character(s) of opposition, a well-defined external goal (providing the electricity for the Chicago World’s Fair), motivated by an internal need (to prove that he is the best). It’s a relatively simple plot with complex characters–well characters that should have been more complex than they were written to be. Unfortunately, the plot was made complicated by too much technical jargon and felt too “telly” because of the perpetual exposition dumps. Further evidence of the weak screenwriting is witnessed in the lack of character development. What we are left with is a simple (yet dull) plot and simple characters. This would explain why all the elements for a great historical movie are there, but it still feels kind of weird.

As fantastic as the cinematography is, it certainly needed something to work with in order to deliver the luscious imagery we get in this movie. Fortunately, the cinematographer was given gorgeous sets, outstanding costumes, and locations that function as de facto characters. Good thing too, because the cinematographer was not given a script or characters to highlight. The stylistic cinematography provided by Chung-Hoon illuminates the dark with visually stunning choices that exude a strong commitment to visual storytelling. Had Chung been given a visually-driven screenplay, then perhaps we might be talking Oscar noms next year. Performing as strongly as the cinematography is the editing. If you like the way Broadway movies are edited, then you will enjoy the editing techniques employed to cut together this story. Just as this is a movie about inventors (of either inventions or clever ways of acquiring patents), the editing feels highly inventive for this style of movie. Whereas the screenplay feels very History Channel, the editing is fresh, sharp, and never feels dull (unlike the story itself).

Personally, what I found most interesting was the Edison story. Not because he was my favorite character, quite the contrary. After all, Edison comes off as the Ray Kroc of electricity. Why I was particularly interested in his story is because I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Ford and Edison Winter Estates in Fort Myers, Florida. For example, I’ve seen that same lightbulb map at the museum as well as one of his laboratories. Having visited his winter nome (which functioned as his supplementary research lab), I could literally place myself in his world. One of the labs that used to exist on the property has since been relocated to Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village, which is home to many historical houses and buildings that have been relocated from their original standing place to the living museum. After the movie has provided me with the inside story on Edison, next time I visit his Winter Estate, I will view it with new eyes. If you have the opportunity to visit Greenfield Village or the Ford and Edison Winter Estates, I highly encourage you to take your time to walk through the history of two of the greatest minds that transitioned us into the modern era though ingenuity and determination.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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“Captain America: Civil War” movie review

Civil_War_Final_Poster‘Marvel’ous! Nearly a complete departure from the conventional comic book superhero movie genre. Avengers 2.5 is a politically-charged superhero movie that will catch you off guard and provide you with a mostly non-cartoonish plot filled with well-developed conflict and character development. Witness some of your favorite Marvel superheroes secede from the Avengers and oppose those who they once fought side-by-side. Along the way, you also get to meet some new additions to the team that will provide some awkward comedic sequences in this otherwise serious movie. Deep dark secrets come to the surface that threaten the very possibility of the team ever having any hope of reunification. Captain America: Civil War is a brilliantly produced film that will have even those who typically do not care for most superhero films leaving the theatre satisfied and anticipating the next installment in the series. Although it is really an Avengers movie, there is still enough focus on the title character to support the choice of titles for this action-packed epic adventure.

Captain America: Civil War takes place not long after the catastrophic events at Sokovia and following another destructive battle, the United Nations and U.S. Government decide to intervene and put The Avengers in check. Opposing the team signing onto an international agreement defining how this group of “vigilantes,” Captain America (Chris Evans) falls away from the group and seeks his own destiny frocked with vengeance and misplaced allegiances. With the once unified team fracturing, a covert former Soviet operative is plotting the destruction of The Avengers from the inside out. Much in the vein of the American Civil War, The Avengers are split and Captain America forms his team while Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) attempts to hold the team together and honor the agreement with the United Nations. The once inseparable Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) must choose sides and decide where allegiances truly lie.

It isn’t often that a genre typically filled with high concept, shallow plots can surprise you with a narrative radiating with anthropological and political themes and subtext. The brilliance of Captain America: Civil War is that it provides the audience with equal parts action-packed fight choreography and well-developed dramatic plot with prolific amounts of character conflict. Furthermore, the story will exceed your expectations of the ability to tap into one’s superficial response to action-packed stimuli and activate the deeper emotions of allegiance, betrayal, and self-preservation. For those who have not seen the previous movies in the Captain America series–another admirable element of this installment, is not causing those who have yet to watch the previous CA movies to feel left out of the excitement. Provided you have seen the preceding Avengers movies, this one will keep you trekking along with your favorite Avengers universe characters. There are certainly minor elements or past relationships that are introduced in the previous CA movies, but most likely you will be able to pick up on the aforementioned as you watch Civil War.

Another observation of this installment in the Captain America/Avengers franchises respectfully, is the movie’s success in both including current characters and introducing new ones without the film ever feeling too crowded, as it was with Batman v Superman. In addition to the Avengers minus Hulk and Thor, the audience is introduced to an adolescent Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and are re-acquainted with Ant Man (Paul Rudd). As I am not familiar with the comics, I cannot comment on this Spider-Man in respect to staying true to the comic, but I found this incarnation of Spider-Man to be on the verge of annoying. Perhaps that is how he is suppose to be, but it did not fit in with how he has been historically portrayed in cartoons and movies. However, the inclusion of both the respective characters did not feel forced as it so easily could have. Since the film primarily focussed on Captain America and secondly Iron Man, the large cast of characters was handled efficiently. The writers could include all these characters in one narrative, but shift the focus from character or character thus never overstimulating or overwhelming the audience with the development of such a dynamic ensemble cast.

Ordinarily, I do not speak so highly of superhero movies; but this film left me feeling quite satisfied and pleased with how well the film played off as a serious movie complete with plenty of opportunity for emotional connections. That being said, the one sequence of the movie that I did not find as entertaining or fitting is the elaborate “civil war” battle on the tarmac. Was it choreographed well? Yes. Was it instrumental in moving the plot forward? Yes. Did it effectively fit in with the rest of the mood and pacing of the film? No. Moreover, that entire sequence of scenes just felt awkward. And, that is mostly due to the inclusion of the naivety and immaturity of Spider-Man and witty/sarcastic/near-juvenile antics of Ant Man. Perhaps if only one adolescent-like character had been added, that part of the film would not have felt so awkward. As to not give away the reasons for the solemn mood of the film, I cannot go into much detail; but, the manner which this scene was written and directed just felt out of place and interrupted the otherwise excellent pacing and mood of the story. I agree that most serious movies need comedic relief in order to generate an emotional rollercoaster, but this was just a little too funny with respect to the rest of the film.

The summer blockbuster season is officially underway with the undoubtedly successful opening weekend of Captain America: Civil War aka Avengers 2.5. Unlike last year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, this installment will take you on fantastic journey of emotional mountains and valleys of character and plot development. This film proves that a superhero movie can be both fantastically action-packed and dramatic. The political subtext will also provide friends and family countless hours of discussion and analysis. Although this is not an adult superhero movie in the way Deadpool was, there is still language and violence that may not be appropriate for young kids. Still, one of the earmarks of a summer blockbuster is a movie that can attract and please both teens and adults, and this is definitely a great example. Hopefully, this movie is an indicator of an exhilarating summer season at the cinema.

PS. Notice the nod to Disney’s D23 Club? I did!