I pointedly avoided watching Disney’s TANGLED for almost a decade, in large part because of this absolutely vile sizzle reel that would look gauche next to even THE EMOJI MOVIE. To its credit, this trailer is a pretty convincing vehicle for wooing young boys away from Shrek, but it also thoroughly convinced 16-year-old me that the house that built BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and THE LION KING had settled for the lowest hanging fruit. It wasn’t until Disney+ launched late last year and I saw the film on a lark that I realized how very, VERY wrong I had been. TANGLED is a masterpiece of animation, intertwining scintillating visuals, clever humor, and a script that’s as finely tuned as it is thematically poignant. I’ve seen it five times in as many months since the Mouse’s streaming service invaded my TV, and the waterworks still kick in whenever the lantern scene plays, or when Rapunzel finally meets her parents, or to be honest, the moment the opening titles appear. I now count TANGLED among my favorite works of the medium.
The replay button on the app be like:
TANGLED was hardly the only four-quadrant movie whose promotional material scared me away. Pixar’s INSIDE OUT is rightfully remembered as the literal emotional rollercoaster it is, but the only impression we had of it before it premiered? This goofy clip that makes the film seem like a looped playlist of gags that already feel tired before the teaser is over. It was the same story with the previews for WALL-E, RATATOUILLE, and the recent TOY STORY 4, all movies that I now adore but was too cynical to catch while in theaters. The upcoming SOUL, helmed by INSIDE OUT’s Pete Docter, is guilty of this as well, its teaser undercutting an intriguingly grounded setup for Pixar with a whoopie-cushion of a gag meant to draw kids in.
None of this is fundamentally wrong; kids need to be sold on a cartoon so the parents know which one they’re getting dragged to, after all. But when Pixar cuts their trailers the same way DreamWorks would for one of their Madagascar flicks, it makes it easy to forget that the animation house is one of the most consistent producers of, dare I say, masterpieces in Hollywood. Pixar enjoys a reputation for workshopping airtight narratives before bringing them to life, which is a dedication to quality no other studio in Hollywood can rival.
Unfortunately, the benefit of the doubt can only get you so far. The studio’s latest offering, ONWARD, has also been marketed with tykes in mind, though there were a few additional red flags that made me uncertain about the enterprise. Fantasy has always been Disney’s domain, and Pixar’s increasingly frequent trespasses into this territory over the past decade never quite reach the bar set by the genuine article. The abundance of RPG imagery, most noticeably manifested in older bro character Barley, seemingly feeds off the same fetishization of nerd culture that so many reductive franchises have exploited of late. And yes, the idea of swapping out an original Pixar short with a trumped-up ad for THE SIMPSONS on Disney+ does not sing praises for the ideological purity of the marquee it’s attached to.
Look, I get it; The guy looks like he has strong opinions about THE LAST JEDI
I’m not the only one who gazed upon ONWARD’s marketing with trepidation, as the film has officially joined THE GOOD DINOSAUR as Pixar’s second box office bomb. COVID-19 can’t be blamed for this one, as the film tanked domestically upon release as well as internationally, which means there’s just something about ONWARD’s pitch that hasn’t been grabbing audiences. It’s a real shame, because once I convinced myself to buy a ticket, I discovered that ONWARD is a genuinely heartfelt adventure and, in my opinion, the best Pixar entry since INSIDE OUT.
In a rare turn for Pixar, the trailer pretty much spells out ONWARD’s plot: Ian and Barley are elf brothers who discover their late father’s magical staff. After botching a spell that will bring dad back for a day (comically leaving only his legs in our dimension), the two-and-a-half men must race to finish the incantation before its effects are lost forever. Inspired by director Dan Scanlon’s own relationship with his brother following their father’s early passing, it’s a story that feels far more personal than most of Pixar’s more recent outings.
While the premise could easily be turned into one of the paint-by-the-numbers fetch quests it parodies, ONWARD finds itself in the relationship between insecure Ian and the completely lacking-in-awareness Barley. Like a lot of odd couples, you’ve seen this dynamic before, but in true Pixar fashion, it’s the way these two hop across genres that makes them memorable. ONWARD’s coming-of-age tale is equally adept at channeling brotherly love as it does the relationships between fathers and sons. While all the elaborate spells and mythical creatures are dazzling to behold (any review of a new Pixar movie has a sentence somewhere that reads like this, but it bears mentioning that the light and particle effects in particular are absolutely jaw-dropping), the real magic is how ONWARD constantly reframes its characters’ dynamics, culminating in an ugly cry-inducing ode to the power of family.
But seriously, look at the detail on those sparks!
Why Disney can’t figure out a way to market ONWARD and other animated films like this and as slapstick adventures that will get the kids laughing is beyond me. I think one of the great things about animated films like this, especially ones targeting boys, is how they can encourage young viewers to articulate their feelings and take their first early steps towards emotional maturity. That being said, you wouldn’t be remiss watch a trailer for ONWARD and see “Bill & Ted Go to Middle Earth.” Such an assessment doesn’t do ONWARD justice, but is exactly the one I fear is responsible for the movie’s current financial woes.
There are plenty of parallels to be drawn between ONWARD’s urbanized fantasy realm and its creators’ own tenure at Disney. There’s a scene where the brothers admonish a manticore that runs a tacky franchise restaurant for refusing to help them on their quest, reminding her of when she used to be the most feared warrior in all the lands. Like the trussed-up monster, ONWARD has been presented as a product domesticated by corporate sensibilities. Remember when Pixar didn’t churn out sequels like clockwork, when THE SIMPSONS was transgressive, and when Chris Pratt wasn’t a sellout? ONWARD taps into this nostalgic yearning, without itself succumbing to regressiveness. A lot of this has to do with the timelessness of what ONWARD champions, namely integrity, openness, and being true to yourself. It is, simply put, a return to the studio’s glory days.
Being true to yourself here can mean asking Corey for another order of mozzarella sticks.
It should go without saying that Pixar is the final word in quality animation and storytelling (yeah, I hear you Ghibli-heads, and I don’t care). Unfortunately, the same truth cannot be universally applied to their Disney overlords, and the master’s yoke can often be mistaken as a new mindset. I want to assure anyone on the fence that ONWARD is not whatever cheap trick they fear it is, but rather a sincere depiction of the bond between two brothers and, at the rate this pandemic is going, probably one of the better movies that will hit big screens this year (unless you’re gunning that hard for MONSTERS HIGH and C4RS, in which case, stay in quarantine).