Onward is a brand new animated fantasy adventure film from Disney and Pixar (the studios behind such classics as the Toy Story movies, Finding Nemo, and Inside Out), and was directed by Dan Scanlon from a script by Scanlon, Jason Headley, and Keith Bunin. The story goes that long ago, there was magic and adventure throughout the land, but as everything became modernized, magic began to fade away due to lack of necessity and want of use. This film begins decades into that modernization, and stars Tom Holland as Ian Lightfoot, a mild-mannered elf who, on his 16th birthday, is given a wizard staff by his mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) as a gift from late father (whom he never got to meet), which allows him to bring his father back for one whole day by way of a magic spell. Naturally, this greatly excites Ian’s more rambunctious older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), whose entire personality basically revolves around being obsessed with magic and the lore surrounding it; and thus, the two begin the incantation in earnest. However, Ian’s inexperience with magic causes things to go slightly awry, and the gem from which the spell’s power derives is shattered, leaving only the legs and feet of his late father intact, and only 24 hours until the spell’s effect wears off. With not much time left, and a long journey ahead of them, Ian and Barley set off on a quest to bring back the rest of their father before the sun sets on the next day, traversing the land far and wide for answers as to where to find a new hidden gem in order to resume the spell. As they make the journey together, both sons have to learn how to work with each other’s conflicting personalities, triumph over a myriad of fantastical challenges, engage with a wildly different world than the one they’re used to, and hopefully, re-kindle some of that ancient magic along the way. This film also stars Octavia Spencer, Mel Rodriguez, Lena Waithe, and Ali Wong.
Disney and Pixar have been one of the longest-standing animated powerhouse studios in cinematic history. In fact, just this past month, they took home their second Best Animated Feature Oscar on a directorial debut which also functioned as an expanded conclusion to their most iconic and recognizable franchise. But for a little while now, they’ve seemed a bit stuck in terms of their original properties. After Coco, which is an excellent but fairly formulaic film when judged alongside Pixar’s usual output, the studio seemed to be once again stuck in prequel and sequel territory with films like Incredibles 2 and the formerly mentioned Best Animated Feature winner Toy Story 4, just as they seemed a bit stuck post-Inside Out with Finding Dory and Cars 3. Given these circumstances, it seems a bit surprising that this would be the company’s first foray into fantasy adventure territory since Brave (which I have not seen, to be honest), what with how rich fantasy and adventure worlds are in terms of story possibility, as well as just how many different types of original films one can mine from that genre. Nevertheless, that is the situation Pixar finds itself in right now, and with Soul coming from Inside Out director Pete Doctor over the 2020 summer, as well as little competition in the way of family-oriented fare in theaters at the moment, this does seem like an ideal time for them to flex their more experimentational muscles a bit. Enter Onward, the first-ever animated Dungeons and Dragons movie.
To start off with the positive, Onward is a very good movie. Its characters are sincere (although a little grating at points), its story is heartfelt, and although not all of the comedic beats land very well (actually, most of them don’t), the creativity explored in developing/adapting some of its harder-to-grasp concepts for kids is a real treat to experience. The whole voice cast does really solid work (namely Holland and Pratt as the pair of brothers at the story’s center), and there is a genuine sense of adventure as the two main characters explore the world around them, taking us on the journey through caverns and towards mountains and on the expressway. The animation, as usual, is very good, with fine detail the kind of which only Pixar and Dreamworks are able to pull off, though as far as character designs go, they don’t feel the most original. Talking about the quality of animation when it comes to Pixar movies, though, feels like somewhat of a moot point. (It’s Pixar; of course the animation is going to be good.) And, of course, as these companies are known to do, the conclusion does manage to bring at least a few tears to the surface with a touching end to the journey and a genuine sense of purity in its dramatic intention.
However, it does have some pretty significant problems that prevent it from being able to be counted among the likes of Pixar’s more instantly iconic fair like Inside Out or Finding Nemo. For one, the character development does feel lacking in more than a few spots, namely with side characters like the Manticore and our main characters’ mom. They’re not badly written characters or anything, but they don’t feel as if they have much dimension to them beyond “animated fantasy version of modern real-life archetypes.” With all the avenues one could have explored using those characters in terms of story arcs, it just feels like the easiest approach to take, even if the one that makes the most sense is a little harder to do. Even Barley, one of the main characters in the movie, feels fairly one-note right up until we near the movie’s finale. We understand that he’s obsessed with magic and RPG board games, but that’s all we understand about him. The most egregious example of lack of development, however, is Ian and Barley’s apparent step-dad, Colt Bronco, a police Officer that has basically no defining traits apart from being a centaur. There are so many things one can do with that character that the film just doesn’t do, instead relegating him to a side character we don’t get to know so we can have a police chase somewhere in the movie.
Another issue is that Onward didn’t seem to me like it would ultimately stick in the mind the same way Pixar’s other original properties do. It has the usual mix of Pixar’s somewhat terrifying emotional power, sure, but not the kind that has you talking to all your friends outside the theater and reminiscing over what parts you cried at or how powerful its message is. Come to think of it, I’m not really sure what the theme of Onward was really meant to be. I suppose it’s about appreciating what you already have and recognizing how sometimes family can take on different roles in your life than you thought, but the fact that I had to speculate on that overnight demonstrates that it’s not communicated very clearly while watching the movie on screen. Still, when the theme does kick in as the movie hits its emotionally centered climax, it does manage to shift perspective in an effective and unexpectedly powerful way.
The film’s largest downfall, however, is just how unremarkable its world is, despite its passion for the fantastical and adventurous. Even though this is meant to be a fantasy film, the world feels so populated with elements that are not at all fantastical that seeing one that is feels kind of lackluster. There’s meant to be a sense of wonder to this adventure, and I simply didn’t feel any of that when looking at the modern roads or the cars driving through the fields, or the police vehicles chasing down a mini-van through a field of stone ravens. Onward is meant to represent the resurrection of forgotten magic, but it doesn’t really seem to understand that the journey there needs to inspire wonder instead of a need for wonder. By stripping the fantastical world of its fantastical elements, and then not letting us experience what those elements are actually like in terms of the land which our characters inhabit, the film takes away the sense of awe its characters should have at what magic and magical lands really look like. Perhaps it’s a Catch-22, because our main characters need to discover how great magic is in order to bring back a magical world, but still, the journey there feels too steeped in modernity to really hit that point home.
Onward is a really solid animated adventure it would be for sure safe to take the whole family to, but it does also ultimately feel like lower-tier Pixar when judged against its counterparts from the same studio. It’s certainly better than anything in the Cars franchise, and stands above The Good Dinosaur as far as story and character is concerned, but unfortunately, it doesn’t get a whole lot higher than that. Still, I enjoyed myself watching it, you’ll enjoy yourself too, and I’m happy that Disney and Pixar are still trying to make original material alongside their established franchises. Experimenting in filmmaking is hard enough to pull off, but to make it work as well as Pixar does is a feat worthy of admiration, regardless of how the final product turned out. It may not be perfect, but it’s different, and that’s good enough for me to give it a green light.
I’m giving “Onward” an 8/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.