In the usual course, I would have plumped for Jeanette Nordahl’s debut feature, Wildland, which promises to be a dark Nordic drama, about a matriarch who presides over a family of small-time hoods, and a young woman who may have unusual criminal tendencies of her own.
But it’s an overcast rainy morning, and I want to chase away the greys with something warm and fuzzy, so I head into Pixar’s Onward, and am immediately enveloped by warm fuzziness. It’s a fantasy, featuring elves, unicorns, centaurs and more mythical creatures. All the primary colours and their combinations can be seen, all at once. Our hero is an awkward, gangly teen elf called Ian (voiced by Tom Holland, also known as Spiderman) and his loud, overbearing big brother Barley (Chris Pratt), their cuddly, caring mom (Julia Louis Dreyfus). The father is a photo on the wall, Ian misses his dad, and is to be found shying away from his brother’s and mother’s ministrations. He loves them, of course he does, but he needs to do his own thing, of course he does.
It’s a film about growing up, finding yourself. What else, it’s a Pixar film. Within minutes, I’m finding all the talking a little too much: all the characters keep explaining everything, and that’s the bane of all animated films. But soon, despite myself, I’m charmed. Ian and Jack set out ‘On An Adventure’, ‘On A Path Of Peril’, to find a shiny object which will lead them to their father. ‘For One Day Before The Sun Goes Down.’
All those capitals! All those blinding colours! All the cuteness! Onward cannot be more clear about where it wants to go, and the place it nudges us towards – to let go of the past, make peace with ourselves, and go on. Director Don Scanlon lost his father when he was very young, and the story is also about coming to terms with loss and grief, and that’s where it locks into true feelings, making us moist-eyed.
But before this teary-eyed denouement, the film manages to be a lot of fun. The two brothers use magic spells, channeling their inner Harry Potter, as they go on their quest, leaving behind the freeway: one of the most telling moments of the movie is how young Ian learns to merge into rushing traffic. That requires confidence, and fearlessness: no magic wand will help. Merging into traffic is one of the big coming-of-age moments of life.
Finally, Ian and Barley face down a monster, with a great deal of help from their plucky mom, and a jovial manticore, a combination of a winged dragon and scorpion (Octavia Spencer). They get their moment with their dad, who has been just a pair of legs up until then (the upper half is missing). That figure is one of the more unusual things about this Pixar fantasy. It starts off making one uncomfortable, and then we start looking at this incomplete person with affection. It’s a smart way of telling us that no one is perfect. And that imperfections matter.
Onward also smartly manages to slip in some boys’ stuff, the kind of spiky stuff that family-oriented animations don’t usually touch. How it’s all right to say what you feel, and to show those feelings. Yes, It’s Okay For Boys To Cry. That is a moment which is truly moving, and makes up for ducking dark crime dramas.
But darkness is never far from film festival delights, especially at the Berlinale, and I make up for my sins with Natalia Meta’s psychosexual Spanish drama, The Intruder. How does the mind deal with trauma? Ines, a dubbing artist who is also part of a choir, finds herself battling nightmares. A holiday with a domineering lover which ends in a tragedy, has led to a series of sleepless nights. The microphone keeps picking up strange noises: where are they coming from? Who is inside her?
That the mind plays games we have known. And that fevered minds beat their own drums is also something we know. Ines, wonderfully played by Erica Rivas (the out-of-control bridezilla in the last segment of Wild Tales) is on the verge of a breakdown, and we see her getting inexorably to the edge: who controls us? Are we really ever in control? And what is for real? It leaves us with an even more provocative question: is a relationship which refuses to be equal and respectful, the most long-lasting intruder in our lives?
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