ONWARD 2020 Movie Review

(This review contains mild spoilers for the Disney Pixar movie Onward, 2020.)

I have seen this beautiful movie twice now, and I’ll probably go back to see it more before April. I went into Onward with as little knowledge as I could because I wanted to be surprised. And I was, in the most wonderfully pleasant way.

First, the mixture of old magic and modern technology is so well done. The sprites drive motorcycles because they grew used to the ease of modern technology and no longer use their wings. And there are skyscrapers, but if you look closely, many of them have castle turrets on top, a fantastic touch. There were also rabid unicorns.

Another aspect I really appreciated was the way that the writers pulled in ongoing threads throughout the story. The tail light looked like a phoenix gem, which came in handy. There were several instances where Ian or Barley got a splinter from the magic staff, which becomes a useful tidbit towards the end. And the car air conditioning was a plot point!

During my viewing I managed to catch some neat little tidbits. In the grocery store there is “Cloak & Cola” as one of the soda options, as well as some jerky sticks that are labeled “wild boar sticks.” Here we also see Dewdrop, one of the sprites, eating a pixie stick, which I found strangely ironic. There are also fun store names throughout, the most memorable being “Sir Snips A Lot,” for the barbershop.

Other details that need to be mentioned and should be appreciated is the precision that the animators and artists brought to the scenes:

  • the messy pen ink
  • the peeling paint on an old wooden bench
  • dust particles in the air
  • tiny visible face hairs
  • wet hair during a misty afternoon
  • face oil and sweat when stressed
  • slightly uneven and realistically imperfect teeth
  • sweater fuzz

The coloring and lighting was so beautiful and well done! Overall the movie had a general blue tint, which transitioned to necessary green or red lighting to accommodate for stop lights and glowing soda machines. I felt the passion that the team had for this movie, all the details came together so well.

The amount of brotherly and familia love in this movie! I definitely cried twice during my first viewing, and got teary-eyed in my second viewing. Barley has had the role of big brother and father figure all his life, and Ian didn’t notice, not until much later. Barley does the stereotypical “embarrassing dad” things. He picks Ian up from school in his beat-up van, embarrasses Ian, tries to clean him up — with his own spit — , protects him, and teaches him.

“You’ll never be ready, MERGE!” Barley shouts at Ian while Ian is learning to drive in the midst of a crowded freeway.

“You can do this!” Barley tells Ian during multiple tough situations.

“I never had a dad, but I always had you.” Ian says towards the end of the movie.

Onward is for the nerds. Barley is a history buff, who play role playing games and Ian is a math whizz and science geek. Their dynamic shines throughout the story and their own individual quirks come into play in sweet and inventive ways.

Where this movie really shines, is the power of the MOM. The mom is so fantastic, along with her new friend The Manticore as they travel after the boys, trying to keep them from trouble. With the mom and The Manticore there is a recurring theme of female strength.

The mom repeats, “I’m a mighty warrior,” a few times throughout the movie. The first time during a fitness workout, and the last time in an epic battle.

Something that really made this movie spectacular was the variety of body shapes, voices, and people throughout. There was also a character with a disability and a gay character. While Disney Pixar still has quite a way to go in the field of diversity and inclusivity, this was a start and I look forward to watching as they go down that road.

There is a scene towards the beginning of the film, where Ian is listening to a tape from his dad. He interacts with it as if it were a phone call and not a prerecorded tape. I loved the way they did this, it felt so raw and personal. I immediately started tearing up, even though it was just the beginning of the movie.

Onward was one of my favorite movies of 2020, I can’t wait to go see it again and to own it once it comes out on DVD.

Her

Directed by Spike Jonze

    What makes the movie Her timeless is it’s deeper message about life and connections. It’s true it’s a movie about artificial intelligence and the emergence of AI’s in modern society, and following the social implications. However, it transcends time. There are constant moments of old fusing with new, making it difficult to distinguish the exact moment in time this might be happening. Based off of setting and surroundings, the tall buildings, curved line of the modern era, and thick screened technology, retro colors, and old fashioned furniture of the 70’s it’s hard to tell.

    Her is like a Rorschach test, more commonly known as an inkblot test. Everyone sees the same set of inkblot imagery, but what they perceive and what they get out of it is entirely up to the individual, what they experienced in their lives that leads them to see different images. Although many problems have been found with the Rorschach test, the metaphor still stands. There are many angles of interpretation for Her, every person will latch on to a different aspect and theme for the film. It’s about the complexities of life, relationships, love, technology, and connection. Although the tech in the movie is new, a high performance processing system equipped with a female (or male) voice to organize your life, the thinking is still relatively the same to what we have today. Theodore ends up in a kind of long distance relationship, spending long periods of time on his phone, talking to his lover’s voice.

    This kind of embodiment of a character through purely voice adds to the connection Theodore feels toward Samantha. She’s always in his pocket, never absent, able to be called upon at any moment. Feminists will look at this idea as vaguely sexist, the idea of the perfect woman ready at a moment’s notice to do the man’s bidding. Samantha is there to organize Theodore’s files and get his life together. But she also functions as more. By connecting with Samantha, Theodore is able to move past the difficulties of his divorce from his now ex-wife Catherine. She acts as the stable person in his life who helps him realize where he went wrong with his past relationship, his molding of his partners to be something they aren’t.

    Even though Samantha is truly a mold made from him, learning from his speech patterns and his topics of conversation, she eventually evolves into someone/something else. Later in the film she speaks to other AI’s and interacts with thousands of other humans. Through this she learns to be more than what Theodore originally planned her to be, and his original mold of her. She gains insight that eventually aids Theodore, by pointing out why his relationships always fail. His high expectations and fantasies of his partners always fall in his way.

    This film offers a snapshot into the human psyche, embodying what we do wrong as humans, our flaws, in the eyes of an AI. In the picnic scene with the other couple, Samantha has a moment of clarity. She says she used to be resentful of not having a body, but then she realized she doesn’t need one. She is so much more by not having a physical form, she can be in many places at once, she never ages, she isn’t fragile like humanity. The camera angles in this scene add to her words by emphasizing the empty space beside Theodore, while the other couple sits side by side. There’s a void where Samantha should be, overlayed by diegetic non synchronous sound. The source of Samantha’s voice is not shown. In this scene Samantha uncovers what humans fear about AI’s, the sheer power they would have over us as flawed humans, how they would control us and our lives, while we’re stuck in our meat sac human forms. Through this moment of self actualization Samantha manages to separate herself from the picnic scene and from her human connection. Before her small speech the scene felt almost natural, a double date in the countryside. But after, her connection to humanity feels severed, the characters realize the difference between them. The human experience cannot be fathomed by an AI.

    By the end of the movie it’s not the connection with Samantha that’s left. Along his journey to knowing Samantha and living his life with the presence of an AI, Theodore has found the connection he lost. He’s parted from the idea of his ex-wife, signed his divorce papers and departed on stable terms. He’s realized what had brought about the destruction of his marriage. Himself. And he formed a true human connection. Him and his long time friend Amy bound over their relationships with AIs, and find each other over their mutual loss of connection with them. They feel abandoned, together, by their AI’s who left the human servers to go on to bigger and better things. This scenario is a new and futuristic idea, while still holding true to an age old struggle of abandonment. Amy and Theodore have both lost what was at the time very near and dear to them, without realizing that what they learned from these relationships is the benefits of humanity.

    Even though they aren’t immortal or able to transcend their physical space, they hold the flaws of humanity in their hands. Their mortality makes their relationships worth so much more, their connections so much more valuable because of the singular physical space they can occupy at any one moment.

    The movie Her is able to portray such a timeless message of connection and the human experience by using the carefully interwoven old and new. Through seeing this story of AI technology in an ambiguous setting of future and retro, the viewer gets a glimpse of modern society. What will and won’t change. Different connections, but humans will always be connecting, through whatever means they find. As stated in Film Theory An Introduction Through the Senses by Thomas Elsaesser and Malte Hagener, “Screens are in effect something that stands between us and the world, something that simultaneously protects and opens up access” (43). The screens through which the humans in Her interacted with their AI’s acted as a screen that protected them from the rejection of real human connection, but also blocked them from true experiences with others of their own. Both negatively and positively changing their life’s experiences. The AI’s are coming for us.