I went back through the different outlets I've made content for in the past and came to an unexpected conclusion: I've never written an actual review of a Pixar film beyond a few Twitter responses. The reason that this sounds bizarre is that, in addition to 'Star Wars,' Pixar was the other major driving force behind my love of movies, and has been responsible for some of my most distinct movie-watching memories.
The original 'Toy Story' was one of the first movies I remember watching on VHS (yes, I'm old enough to remember using VHS). I remember watching 'Monsters Inc.' on way too many car rides, and, years after seeing 'The Incredibles' with my nana in the theaters, watching 'Coco' and helping understand my own connection to her after her passing.
The point being is that Pixar have always been there for me, and even into my slightly jaded adulthood, I still hold them to the highest standards of storytelling, even more than their in-house competitors at Walt Disney Studios. So of course any time a new project of theirs gets announced, I'm automatically interested...but if I'm being honest, 'Onward' didn't seem like all that.
If you read my Most Anticipated Films of 2020 list, you'd know that 'Soul' was really the film I was looking forward to from these guys, mainly because, in comparison, 'Onward' looked kind of basic from everything I had seen at that point. The fantasy/real-world elements didn't seem like they'd mesh together all that well, the trailers didn't look that emotionally interesting, and, to top it all off, it was being directed by Dan Scanlon of 'Monsters University' (which is a film that I admire a little bit more at this point in my life, but still wouldn't put anywhere near Pixar's best).
Still, that's seven years between that film and this new project, along with the instant benefit of "this is Pixar," so does 'Onward' live up to that legacy? It actually does in more ways than I thought. I won't jump up and down, campaigning this as top-tier Pixar, but I'll take pretty good Pixar over the best from other animation studios any day of the week. Dan Scanlon's film is one that I wish felt a bit more cohesive in embracing its weirder elements, but has more than enough characters and pacing for a great adventure, along with some legitimately mature choices in its arcs that I can really respect.
The world of 'Onward' is similar to the modern world we know, but populated by elves, goblins, unicorns, and other magical creatures. The story follows two elf brothers, the younger Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) and the older Barley (voiced by Chris Pratt). Ian is relatively shy and about to start a new year in high school, while Barley is taking a gap year to figure out his life and is obsessed with medieval role-playing games. On Ian's 16th birthday, his mother, Laurel (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) reveals that she has a present from the boys' father, who passed away when Barley was young.
The present is revealed to be a wizarding staff that was to be presented to the boys when they both turned 16. The staff also comes with a spell that the father created to bring himself back to spend one full day with his sons. Discovering he has inherited his father's tenacity for magic, Ian attempts the spell, but only manages to summon the bottom half of his father's body, destroying the crystal that powers the staff in the process. Believing that a replacement crystal exists, Ian and Barley journey on a quest to bring their father back before the day is out, while Laurel teams up with a manticore named Corey (voiced by Octavia Spencer) to warn the boys of a possible curse that they may unleash in the process.
One of the places where 'Onward' works the best is actually where I thought it might feel unimpressive: its characters. If you're like me and thought the choice of Tom Holland as a shy, nerdy kid and Chris Pratt as the overblown jock-type felt a bit too obvious, I would like to settle your doubts. Pixar haven't really explored brotherhood as a significant idea, but Pratt and Holland really start to develop a fun, believable reprise with one another.
Scanlon's screenplay (written alongside Jason Headley and 'Horns' Keith Bunin) very cleverly allows each brother chances to shine, whether through Ian's discovery of new magical abilities or Barley's unbridled enthusiasm for adventure that help give the film a sense of life that winds up feeling key to the story's emotional weight versus some of its other elements.
I'm also not much of an expert when it comes to Dungeons and Dragons or other role-playing games, but I did really enjoy how the film seems to take its cues from the feelings of the games rather than the intricacies. 'Onward' succeeds in crafting a sense of adventure, with that sense of fun coming from that gimmick of the setting: this is very clearly just suburbia as we the audience knows it, but with a framing as a magical quest with real implications and characters who gradually become more and more pivotal to said implications.
Speaking of those implications they do build up to some really well-earned emotional moments (this is a Pixar film after all). Without spoiling any of the big moments, the film does take some directions that, given some of Disney animation's recent track records, I was surprised went the way that they did.
We get to explore ideas of dealing with grief and regret, as well not taking loved ones for granted, and both Ian and Barley feel like characters that grow and are allowed to have those sense of doubt without feeling irritating or melodramatic. Plus, when we get to some of the bigger, overarching moments, they feel like they have legitimate weight and proper pacing to get to them; in other words, I didn't cry, but I thought I was going to for a minute there.
On top of all of that, both Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Octavia Spencer are essentially co-leads in this story, and segments of the film will dart back to them on the trail of the brothers, along with the boys' stepfather, a centaur cop named Colt (voiced by Mel Rodriguez). I wish some of their arcs were fleshed out a bit more, but it is nice to see Pixar taking cues from 'The Incredibles' and giving us a cool mom character with actual urgency. As far as music is concerned, it's a great one-two punch of a new Brandi Carlile song over the end credits, as well as 'The Good Dinosaur's Mychael and Jeff Danna swapping out folksy mandolins for power metal synths (both of which I was COMPLETELY fine with).
Where 'Onward' can crumble a bit lies in a few aspects, but specifically in its animation and the world-building. Now, this is Pixar we're talking about, the animation itself is very crisp and brings a lot of energy that both kids and adults can latch onto. But I feel like some of the character designs lean towards some of the more basic expectations I thought we might get.
Stuff like the manticore is kind of fun, but Ian and Barley themselves just don't strike me as anything other than typical suburban kids that also happen to be blue. Yes, this is coming from a guy with precisely zero fashion sense, but compared to characters like the emotions from 'Inside Out' or the Parr family from 'The Incredibles,' this is disappointing.
That also ties into the films world-building that could have been something so special and just feels way too basic to rave about. Yes, ideas like unicorns as the de facto "raccoons" of this world and a really cool design for a specific creature (that I don't want to spoil) are charming, but the film really doesn't try to delve into much else.
Why couldn't we have gotten more history on where magic went in this world, or seem how today's modern commercialism often washes down history or, in this case, magic? Again, I hate to compare this to Pixar's filmography, but when the 'Cars' movies develop their in-world mechanics and culture better than a movie that is supposed to revolve around a "new and quirky" setting, I have to raise some eyebrows at that.
I guess what I can say is that, for the most part, 'Onward' is classic Pixar. Maybe not up to the highest of their standards, and a bit lacking in some of its wider aspects, but still embodying a lot of the elements I love about their films: great characters, fun and exciting story beats, solid (if not totally consistent) humor, and emotional beats that will inevitably stick in your hearts well after.
I have a feeling audiences are really going to have a good time with this one, especially fantasy fans or families looking for the next great animated adventure. For me, Pixar's films have meant a lot to me for a long time, and for their first effort of the 2020's, this is an entry that I'm happy to journey to again.
Overall, I give 'Onward' 8/10.
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