Dog’s Movie House: “Onward,” “The Way Back” Make For Opposite Sides Of The Redemption Spectrum!

Let’s jump right in with Pixar’s latest, the fantasy film “Onward.” The story takes place during a time much like today, only populated by mythical creatures such as elves, trolls, unicorns, centaurs, and the like. It used to be a place of powerful magic, but as technology intervened, the power faded into obscurity.

Enter brothers Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) Lightfoot, two elves who are under the watchful eye of mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss). Ian is a shy introvert while Barley is the older, more confident brother who spends most of his time playing sword and sorcery board games and driving in his fantasy-themed van, nicknamed Guenevere. Ian, in particular, misses the dad he never knew. Wilden Lightfoot died before Ian was born. On Ian’s sixteenth birthday, he gets a posthumous gift from his father: a wizard’s staff with a crystal and a spell that will allow the boys to spend twenty-four hours with their father. Unfortunately the two screw up the spell and they only get the lower half of their father. It is up to Ian and Barley to go on an epic quest to be able to communicate with their father one last time, all the while with their mother in hot pursuit.

“Onward” doesn’t scream classic film at first. It moves in fits and starts and some of the early humor feels forced. (The pet dragon is cute, though) But as the movie rolls along it finds it’s groove and the characters start to grow on you. Directed and co-written by Dan Scanlon, “Onward” feels like a personal tale and the emotional impact of the movie sneaks up on you. By the end you’ll need a tissue or two.

The voice cast is excellent, with Holland and Pratt exhibiting an easy, believable chemistry. Louis-Dreyfus is terrific as the loving mother and Octavia Spencer has a ball as The Manticore, a quest-provider turned restaurant hostess who finds her true calling again.

The animation is stellar as usual but the secret of the film is it’s heart. The second half of the film is among the best that Pixar has to offer, even if you have to get through a somewhat uneven first half. 4 Out Of 5 On Kendog’s Barkometer!

Next up we have a sports redemption story from Gavin O’Connor, the guy behind “Miracle” and “Warrior.” This one’s called “The Way Back” and it features one of the best performances ever by Ben Affleck. Affleck stars as Jack Cunningham, a local basketball legend who has been circling the drain of life due to his battle with alcoholism. The drinks constantly and is continuously helped home at night by people who did the same thing with his father.

After the coach of his old school suffers a heart attack, Jack is asked to sub as coach, and he throws himself into the task of turning a bunch of somewhat talented individuals into a cohesive team. Enter some familiar sports clichés and the hope of redemption.

If that served as the whole structure of the story, “The Way Back” would be a lesser “Hoosiers” clone, but what makes this film different is two things: a final act turn and Ben Affleck. I won’t tell you about the former save to say it defies many of the conventions of the typical sports movie without being any less satisfying. What I can tell you is that Affleck is amazing in this role, displaying several shades of emotional nuance that reminds you he’s more than just a matinee idol movie star. Many of my colleagues have argued that Affleck’s performance is made all the more resonant by his real-life troubles, but I honestly hate that shit. I’d prefer to see a performance without the prism of the actor’s past, thank you very much. A great performance is a great performance and Affleck delivers one here. O’Connor is a terrific director and even though Brad Ingelsby’s script gets a little cliché-ridden at times, “The Way Back” is a very good sports film that isn’t really about sports. The best sports film never are. 4 Out Of 5 On Kendog’s Barkometer! So Sayeth The Kendog!

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