Lectures For Lifelong Learners!

“Sonic the Hedgehog” and “The Way Back” are also new to Blu-Ray this week.


The 3D animated movies made by Pixar look good—really good. They’ve been impressing audiences with their depth of field, light and shadow, and their own rules of physics for the past twenty-five years. This is great, but they also have not changed much in that time. While there have been advancements made in real world digital rendering, as seen in last week’s pick “The Call of the Wild,” any advancements in digital 3D animation have been subtle at best. You can watch each of the four “Toy Story” movies back to back and there is a consistency to them in spite of the fact that some are decades apart. There is a comfort in this consistency, and I like it so much that I would call it a style. I can look at an animated movie and within a minute or so spot that it’s a Pixar movie.

But audiences need more. If the look of the animation is going to remain relatively stagnant then other elements like story and character are increasingly important, just like they would be in live action. I think this is where Pixar has always succeeded. Whether it’s toys, cars, monsters, or superheroes, Pixar creates their movies from the inside out, starting with interesting characters who have emotionally resonant backstories, then putting them in challenging situations. This is exactly what they did with “Onward,” but this time the characters are elves, centaurs, and something called a Manticore.

The world of “Onward” was one of magic and dragons and unicorns, but the way of magic became antiquated as technology came about. This was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it gave access to fire, and light to the creatures of the kingdom who were not pre-disposed to conjuring and casting spells. The downside is that it made the creatures of the kingdom complacent and lazy, and worst of all, it made them forget the old ways of magic. Next thing the world knew, the once beautiful white unicorns that galloped on the hillsides were fighting over trash on the street.

It is into this modern, magic free world that an elf named Ian Lightfoot (voice of Tom Holland) was born. The age of adulthood for elves is 16, and on his birthday his mother (voice of Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gives him a present that was waiting for him since his father (voice of Kyle Bornheimer) passed away. Actually, the present is of benefit to both Ian and his older brother Barley, who is voiced by Chris Pratt but looks and acts like Jack Black was the original choice. They are given a staff and a gem that will allow them to conjure their father for one day. Given that they are first time magic users, things go awry. They manage to conjure only the bottom half of their dad and need to find another gem to conjure the rest of him before their day is up.

“Onward” is very cleverly written. It combines the Hero’s Journey and the Coming of Age archetypes. Ian is the classic hero who is called to action and must face many perils on his way to achieve his goal. On a more intimate level, he is a shy and awkward teen. He has issues expressing himself and being bold—a sharp contrast to his older brother who has more bravery than brains. These are both external and internal conflicts that Ian must overcome in order to see his dad one last time. There are also a lot of great call backs in the script. This is where a writer introduces a prop or an idea early in the story and if you were paying attention it pays off later. I like these little touches. It shows that screenwriters Dan Scanlon (who also directed), Jason Headley, and Keith Bunin truly cared about the story they were crafting.

In addition to the intelligence of the script, “Onward” has heart too. Pratt and Holland are great together as the voices of the brothers. Their banter and interplay feel right, even when times get tough and hard truths are revealed. There is also a sweetness at the movie’s core with its story about a teenager giving all he’s got to see his beloved dad one last time. For anyone who knows the pain of losing someone close, the movie will get you right in the feels. I especially appreciate the way that “Onward” touts the importance of father figures in children’s lives, be they actual fathers or goofy older brothers. Buy it.

Also New This Week

Sonic The Hedgehog

In all of my time as a Sega Genesis owner in the early to mid-1990s, I never questioned why I was collecting all of those rings while playing “Sonic the Hedgehog.” I just had fun zipping around the various stages at lightning speed (except the water stage—seriously, screw that place) and getting as many as I can. I used to hate it when I bumped into something and my carefully collected rings would scatter all around. I would scramble my fingers frantically over my controller to pick up as many as I could before they vanished.

Screenwriters Pat Casey and Josh Miller, however, answered the question I never asked. The rings are for traveling to different worlds. They also came up with a better way for Sonic (voice of Ben Schwartz) to carry the rings: in a pouch. I wish the Sonic in the Sega games thought of that. It would have saved teenage me a lot of worry.

While we do get to see what fans of the game will recognize as stage one of the first “Sonic” game on the Genesis, it isn’t for too long. Sonic soon finds himself the victim of an attempted kidnapping and uses one of the rings to escape to Earth. This is where he meets a small-town cop played by James Marsden whom he hilariously calls “Doughnut Lord”—and for good reason. He also unfortunately encounters Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey). The way that Robotnik’s other moniker—Eggman—is worked into the script is pretty clever, as are some touches that fans of the game will recognize, like when Sonic taps his foot and looks at his watch. Listen closely toward the end, and you can also hear a minimalist version of the classic Sonic theme song played on piano.

Carrey’s Robotnik is over the top, egotistical, and elitist. These traits are not obvious in the game, but make sense. Carrey is well cast to pull off the manic energy needed for such a cartoonish villain. What this Robotnik does share with his video game counterpart is some sweet gadgets and the desire to capture Sonic. We also get to see Sonic’s point of view as he zips around super-fast. To him, the world moves extra slow. It’s something we’ve seen before with the Quicksilver in the latest “X-Men” movies, where it was done a bit better, but still fits here.

“Sonic the Hedgehog” works well enough on its own, but was certainly made for the fans. The outcry from fans over the original look of Sonic and subsequent re-design is proof that director Jeff Fowler wanted fans to be happy. Given its $58 million opening weekend and $306 million worldwide gross on an $85 million budget, I’d say they were. I’m sure the sequel with Tails teased at the end of this movie happen. Plus with the success of “Sonic,” we might see other movies from beloved games like “Golden Axe,” “Altered Beast, “Shinobi,” or dare I say it, “Streets of Rage.” This could be the birth of the Sega-verse. I don’t want to get too far ahead of things, but this is a promising start. Rent it.

The Way Back

It’s a gripe of mine that alcoholics, particularly those partial to beer, are played by in-shape actors in movies. It’s called a beer belly for a reason. There is something disingenuous about a character claiming to drink multiple beers per day while the actor playing the character has washboard abs.

This is not a problem for Ben Affleck in “They Way Back.” He plays Jack Cunningham, a depressed, alcoholic construction worker who drinks himself silly on a daily basis. He does this both on the job (horrible idea when working on the high steel), after work at a local bar, when he gets home at night, and when he showers in the morning. It’s made clear without a single word being spoken that this man has serious issues. Affleck’s large frame makes this even more credible. He looks like he took the bulky muscle he gained while training for the role of Batman and added a layer of flab to it, giving him a bear-like look. The bulky clothes add to the effect.

Cunningham’s shot at redemption comes when he’s offered the job to coach basketball at his alma mater. They hadn’t won a championship since he was a player two and a half decades ago. “The Way Back” jumps through the usual hoops of this type of inspirational coach story—rag tag group of kids, he gets to care for them as players and as a team, they have a tough rival that they have to beat to go on to the championship—but the movie dives deeper than that and gets into Cunningham’s life story and his complicated relationship with estranged wife Angela (Janina Gavankar) and domineering sister Beth (Michaela Watkins).

The upshot is that “The Way Back” has a moment that would traditionally be the end for a movie of this kind but doesn’t stop there. It continues on since there is more to Jack’s life outside of basketball. It’s an interesting choice to pull the rug out from an audience in such a way. It’s also a risky one. The payoff is mixed. The movie tends to drag a bit in parts, and extending the movie past its usual ending makes it feel longer. What happens with Jack is grounded and real, but not entirely necessary. Eventually we get the true end of the movie, which is more mature than the candy coated ending we’re used to. It’s not as celebratory, but it’s satisfying. Rent it.

More New Releases

“Emma,” the latest movie iteration of Jane Austen’s restless match maker, starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Bill Nighy, and Mia Goth; “Justice League Dark: Apokolips War,” in which Earth is decimated by the villainous Darkseid and the remaining superheroes are forced to regroup and take the war to him if they have any chance of saving the planet once and for all, featuring the voice talents of Tony Todd, Rebecca Romijn, Rosario Dawson, Rainn Wilson, Camilla Luddington, and Taissa Farmiga; and “Brahms: The Boy II,” decent chiller and retcon sequel of 2016’s “The Boy,” elevated to being a better movie than it probably otherwise would be with the lead performance by Katie Holmes.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.