Though we may have moved past the time when every film buff worth their popcorn bucket had to sit up and marvel at every new Pixar film, the studio still turns a head whenever a new trailer comes out. Onward arrived packing big guns: A very original premise boasting some great voice actors and animation that is second to none. I can report it delivers on everything that it promised. And not much more, to be honest.
In a world where magic and creatures of a more fantastical realm exist, modernity has set in and people are quite happy to forego the old magical ways in favour of convenient technology and living. Young elf Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland) has just turned sixteen and alongside his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt), is presented with an arcane staff that belonged to their deceased father with the promise that the right incantation will bring him back for a day. Not really well-versed in the magical arts, Ian blunders the spell and that results in just the lower half of their father being materialised. What’s needed is more magic, as Ian and Barley set off on an epic quest to find some. Along the way they’ll not only encounter wonders of the magical world, but possibly learn something along the way about each other. Plus, they’re dragging a pair of disembodied legs on their adventure.
Onward is directed by Dan Scanlon, a Disney animation veteran and whose last directing duty was coincidentally another Pixar film, Monsters University. His experience is on full display in Onward as the end result looks incredible. Following the pixelated perfection I witnessed with Toy Story 4, Onward showcases top-notch sequences and landscapes littered with intricate details. It’s a world that works to accommodate the more cartoonish nature of its residents without having to compromise on how real it looks and feels. It’s also a world that feels very original. Pixar excels at selling unique premises like this and it’s a refreshing take on subverting magical creatures.
The story seems pretty straightforward at first glance with an emphasis on the magical elements playing into the journey that the two brothers take. But in truth, all that serves as a means to another end. Onwards is actually a story of brotherly bonding, which works in favour of the film due to Tom Holland and Chris Pratt having very good chemistry. Focusing on the family elements would’ve always one-upped the potentially predictable outcome of trying to find and conjure the rest of their father’s body. That said, where Onward does come up short is in the lack of tension. The stakes feel very low throughout the narrative and because of that, I struggled to get legitimately invested in the characters and their plights. Their emotions are tangible, in the script and in the character facial expressions, but they are never presented with decisions or dilemmas that test the strength of those familial bonds. The result is a story that doesn’t hit quite as hard as it wants to.
This is not to say that the characters aren’t well rounded or are uninteresting. While Ian follows the trope of an anxious, socially awkward teenager, his older brother Barley is a dramatic, driven, Dungeons and Dragons enthusiast. His exaggerations contrasted with the more mundane elements of city living are entertaining and though he’s framed as a social dropout, you get to sympathise with his desire to seek out the magic in everything. Additional characters like the brothers’ mom Laurel, her centaur police officer boyfriend Colt, and an overworked restaurant owner manticore named Corey, are all pleasant and interesting in their own ways. A little more of them throughout the movie would’ve been nice. You can never have too much of comedic Octavia Spencer in your movie.
Speaking of comedy, there is only so much of it to be found in Onward largely due to the focus remaining on the magical elements and the quest itself. There are a few gags scattered throughout and I applaud the notion that Barley’s Dungeons and Dragons campaign is framed as ancient history. That element could’ve been beneficial for the movie to take itself a little less seriously. If you’re not achieving the level of grandeur you want in your story, nobody will fault you for falling back on humour. You have an ideal premise for some ideal gags.
With the credits rolling and then even now, I can’t say that I really want to view Onward a second time. It is a very competently made, gorgeous-looking and well-executed kids film. With so much garbage aimed at a younger audience out there, I’m glad the bar is set so high with Pixar films. This one just doesn’t go far above it.
Last Updated: March 6, 2020