Onward is Dan Scanlon’s second feature with Pixar but his third feature overall. His first (incorrectly labeled as a short in some places) was made outside of his work for the animation studio, where he’s been employed since 2001, and it’s a live-action film in the mockumentary format (unsurprisingly, he’s a huge fan of The Office) called Tracy. The premise is that a filmmaker, played by Scanlon, is making a documentary investigating the shooting of a children’s television host decades earlier. Despite how the plot sounds, this isn’t another Citizen Kane by way of Velvet Goldmine level masterpiece. It’s a crudely shot debut.
However, Tracy is worth checking out for what it is, and there is even an interesting connection outside of the obvious. Onward is a movie conceived from a very personal place for Scanlon, who like the main character lost his father before he could ever know the man. And he, too, has an older brother who had only a few vague memories of their dad. But maybe Onward isn’t the first time Scanlon made a movie as a way to cathartically deal with having grown up without knowing his father. Again, I’m going to let this idea come from the person who first made me realize the relevance.
As Collider’s Dave Trumbore puts it, “Tracy feels like the first honest exploration of his Quixotic quest to reconnect with his father. Sullivan is a stand-in for Scanlon himself, an aspiring filmmaker with a penchant for animation who steps outside of himself for a while in order to chase down a decades’ old mystery. In the process, he discovers truths about himself, about the man he and others held up as a mentor, and about those who say they knew the man best. It’s a fantastically put-together tale that also likely offered some catharsis to Scanlon along the way.”
Stream Tracy on Vimeo
Huldufólk 102 (2006)
As Onward is one of Pixar’s few movies lacking human beings, there aren’t a lot of nonfiction works applicable to be this week’s documentary selection. Sure, there are films about how we’ve become too dependent on technology, especially in the computer age, and lost a sense of wonder that we had in the past, but none of those are as interesting to recommend as Huldufólk 102. This Herzogian feature, directed by Nisha Inalsingh, examines the possibility that there is a secret world of “hidden people,” or elves, that have inhabited and still reside in Iceland.
Through its mix of interviews and landscape shots, Huldufólk 102 considers the possibility that our world was once a time of mythical creatures and even still could be. How else to explain certain mysteries of the natural world or cultural traditions and beliefs? Even if the elves aren’t real, though, the film showcases Iceland as a mystical land from its physical environments to the magic of the Northern Lights. Huldufólk 102 also reminds me of the more famous Scandinavian mockumentary Trollhunter, which goes further to depict the sort of regional lore of a culture that’s only hinted at here.
There was a time when Pixar and DreamWorks Animations seemed to be rivals. Early on, they would put out similar-enough projects around the same time (A Bug’s Life and Antz both in 1998, Finding Nemo and Shark Tale in 2003/2004) in a way that felt like too much of a coincidence. But through it all, Pixar stood out as having a better product overall. In 2001, Pixar put out Monsters, Inc. following DreamWorks’ immensely successful Shrek, and both were good enough and different enough on their own to evade too much of the kind of comparison that their respective insect-focused features faced a few years earlier. Still, they were in a way competing projects as far as them both being about fantastical monsters.
Nearly 20 years later, in an age when the animation studios are doing their own things entirely, Pixar has made a feature even more comparable to Shrek with Onward. They’re both set in realms populated by mythical creatures and follow their main character, a reluctant hero, on a quest involving dragons, annoyingly talkative sidekicks, and magic related to sunsets. And they both find humor in relating their fantasy worlds to our own through certain cultural references, albeit more flagrantly in Shrek‘s case. Anyway, I kept waiting for The Proclaimers’ “I’m on My Way” to play on the Onward soundtrack as a result of my mind relating the two movies.
Coupe de Ville (1990)
What happens when you pile Patrick Dempsey, Arye Gross, and Daniel Stern into an old car together for a road trip to see their father? Pretty much the same thing that happens when you pile elves voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt into an old van together for a road trip to see their father. The sibling characters bond along the way and realize they have more of a kinship than they’d thought. And this lesson was maybe orchestrated by the father in the first place. Definitely in the former situation, since Dad admits to the idea.
Coupe de Ville is a little-known favorite of mine from youth, mainly because it’s about three brothers and I’m one of three brothers (I’m the middle child so of course I identified with Gross’ character). The movie is about how the fraternal trio is tasked with personally delivering, together, their father’s old Cadillac to him, but when they get there, the old man (Alan Arkin) explains that it wasn’t about the car so much as it was about them being forced to be with each other again. It’s a good movie no matter what your sibling situation is, but it’s especially meaningful if you’re a brother and have brothers.
Onward is about a fraternal pair on a quest to be able to see their father again, but ultimately the younger learns on his own that the best thing to come out of the trip was actually him being forced to spend time with his older brother and understand how important the guy was as an elder mentor in substitution of having a father around. Onward does it much more emotionally, as in pulling on the heartstrings and turning on the waterworks. Coupe de Ville is sentimental in a way but nothing you’ll need tissues for. Except maybe when you’re laughing during the “Louie Louie” bit.
Weekend at Bernie’s (1989)
If there’s one movie referenced in reviews of Onward more than any other, it’s Weekend at Bernie’s. I didn’t even think that many people thought about this movie anymore. But when you’ve got a story about two guys attempting to pass off a lifeless human shape as being alive, Weekend at Bernie’s automatically comes to mind as relevant content. The black comedy (probably one of the first films I saw that was described as such) delivers some darkly funny slapstick involving a dead man’s body being puppeteered around town by a pair of young dudes who worked for him.
Onward is a bit more classy as the body being pulled around and propped up is partly alive, reanimated magically. The comedy comes in the fact that the bottom half is sort of a zombified entity — just legs and crotch but somehow mobile and sentient (unintentionally implying that men could function as only such because our brains are in our pants?) — while the top half is a stuffed torso, head, and arms combination that flops about and creates awkward situations with its accidental poses. It’s not quite Weekend at Bernie’s for kids, but once you think about the connection it’s hard to forget it.