Recommendation: Targeted more at parents and older teens than a typical Pixar, Onward is a whimsical fantasy experience with a heart of gold. 8/10.
IMDB Synopsis: Set in a suburban fantasy world, two teenage elf brothers embark on a quest to discover if there is still magic out there.
2020 and beyond brings a brave new world at Pixar, and the studio’s newest film Onward is a heartwarming (and sometimes heart wrenching) reminder to look lovingly at the past while simultaneously being laser focused on the future. It’s a film about family—fathers, sons, and brothers—but done with the Pixar magic that cuts audiences to genuine emotional ribbons while being an enjoyably whimsical ride. Set in a mystical land where fantasy adventures and magic have faded and ceded a modern and suburban lifestyle, Director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) has crafted a world that’s unique, familiar, inspiring and touching all at once. Onward foretells an auspicious start for the studio but likely won’t quite reach cult-classic status, a la Toy Story or The Incredibles.
A tear jerker of a premise as they come, Onward features two elven brothers, Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) as they set out on a quest to resurrect their late father for one day with a magic spell bequeathed to them from dear old dad. Ian is an intelligent yet nerdy introvert with untapped potential, while older Barley is an outgoing, fantasy-obsessed teen who is amidst the “longest gap year ever,” according to his lamenting mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Ian badly pines for the father he never met, complete with to-do lists, and a sad, one-sided conversation with an old recording he has of his late father.
Ian and Barley’s attempt to resurrect their dad go awry (after all, magic was believed to be a fairytale) and the boys are left with legs-only dad. The duo must quest to find a phoenix gem (MacGuffin) to complete the spell before time runs out on Dad’s spell. The quest takes the boys through a whimsical fantasy setting, loaded with fantasy elements and tropes, yet modernized in a mundane suburban way. Similar to Zootopia, the setups are used to great affect: A fairy pack as a tough biker gang, a rambunctious pet dragon in lieu of a dog, unicorns as trash-eating pests, etc. The world of Onward feels familiar and fantastical all at once, if a little overly goofy at times (the centaur stepfather comes to mind. A world where magic used to exist, only no one believes in it anymore.
Simply enough, the boys quest from point A to B to C in search of the MacGuffin. But the real heart of the movie isn’t in the physical journey, it’s in the film’s central characters‘ emotional journey. As they face the trials and tribulations of the quest, Ian realizes he doesn’t need the father he never met, but the love and commitment of his brother. It’s all at once cathartic and heartwarming, a trademark trope we’ve come to expect from Pixar.
Onward ends, after the climactic final set piece and epilogue-esque ending, as a solid entry into the Pixar canon. Beautifully animated, well voice-acted, and heartfelt, the film will no doubt be liked. But will it be loved? In a new era of Pixar films (coming soon, Soul), can Onward and it’s elven protagonists take place amongst greats Woody, Wall-E, and Mr. Incredible? Pixar’s Onward is quite good, but not quite great.
MVP: Chris Pratt’s voice acting as Barley is boisterous, confident and hammy, hardening back to his pre-cool guy Parks and Rec days.
Highlights: The animation is gorgeous. Octavia Spencer as a manticore undergoing an identity crisis is a delight. Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the mother is great, albeit underutilized. A massive rideable cheese puff.
Director: Dan Scanlon
Studio: Pixar // Original release date: March 6, 2020