This is #DoubleFeature, in which Harsh Pareek shares two recommendations for the price of none.
Onward (2020). Pixar
WHO DOESN'T LIKE a wholesome fight-for-your-life family adventure — on- and off-screen — every once in a while? Even better if it features malicious AI robots or a motorcycle gang of pixies.
Lately, it has become somewhat rare for an animated feature to genuinely catch one off guard or surprise in an unexpected way. Not for the lack of quality films, but in a strange way, because most of them are pretty good, albeit in a jaded way. You go in with reasonable expectations, and they are met more often than not. To a point where it feels more apt to label most mainstream projects competent, rather than excellent. And it's not difficult to see the recycling and complacency that has crept in. For every Into the Spider-Verse, there are half a dozen quite competent, yet forgettable films, both in terms of style and storytelling. Meanwhile, animated series seem to be doing most of the heavy lifting... but that's a discussion for another day.
In this context, The Mitchells vs. the Machines and Onward manage to pull off the trick rather neatly. Not only do they deliver on the due adventure/comedy/heartfelt dynamic, but work at reframing the familiar in a different light.
WITH HIS FEATURE DIRECTORIAL DEBUT, The Mitchells vs. the Machines, Mike Rianda puts on a spectacle. A Sony Pictures Animation production, the film follows the dysfunctional Mitchells family, who, after a squabble between college-bound Katie (Abbi Jacobson) and her dad (Danny McBride), embark on a cross-country road trip in a desperate attempt to reconnect before it's too late.
Once on the road, the party of five, which also includes Katie's mom (Maya Rudolph), her younger brother (Rianda himself), and their heartthrob dog (Doug the Pug), seems to be treading a well-worn storyline… well, that's until the whole thing takes a left turn. Before you know it, you're in an eye-popping sci-fi robot apocalypse film. And that's about all (if not more than) you should know before going into it.
While the brilliant animation and design immediately pulls you in, it is difficult to overstate how the film excels in almost all departments, be it the writing, voice acting or inclusivity. A gracefully chaotic mash-up of genres, but one that never loses the sight of the bigger picture, The Mitchells vs. the Machines is one of those wild rides that make you want to revisit them, even before they're over.
IN A LOT OF WAYS, Onward is more on the lines of what Pixar Animation Studios has been putting out of late, especially in its engagement with the themes of depression, loss, and death. And perhaps that's the reason it was somewhat unsuccessful in garnering more interest compared to some of the studio's other recent releases.
While the film, directed by Dan Scanlon (Monsters University), doesn't quite break new ground, it's the small choices and world-building throughout that make one wants to tag along with the lead characters on their road trip, rife with mysteries and perils.
Set in a suburban fantasy world, the film follows two teenage elf brothers Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt) who set out on a quest to find an artefact that will temporarily bring back their late father Wilden (Kyle Bornheimer) for twenty-four hours. But when their mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) finds out her boys are missing, she teams up with a legendary manticore (Octavia Spencer) to bring them back home.
A highly polished (and alive) world comes expected of Pixar, but the magic-infused backdrops of suburbia, night-lit cityscapes and winding country roads make it truly stand out. Onward is more than a pretty picture. Even though it harbours sombre themes at its heart, the film uses humour and adventure to great effect. Not to mention, a few surprising, and ultimately rewarding, choices towards the end. It's a film that knows where it's coming from, but is also inclined to stand out in the details.
WORKING ON a mainstream animated feature is often a balancing act of the highest order. A film needs to appeal to a broad range of age groups, which in turn requires more mature themes concerning life (and death) to be handled most delicately. The Mitchells vs. the Machines and Onward not only walk that line with poise and reassurance, but bring so much more to the table with elements of comedy and escapade.