Heigh-ho, Heigh-ho, it's onward we go
Onward is directed and co-written by Dan Scanlon, and stars the voices of Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Octavia Spencer.
The past few years have not been kind to my approval of Disney and their decisions when it comes to nearly anything and everything cinema. From giving sequels or prequels to timeless classics like Mary Poppins, to giving needless live-action remakes to just about every major animated film they've released in their history, Disney has gone all-in with the, "preying on nostalgia" strategy that is showing no signs of slowing down. And why should Disney change? No need to worry about creating brand new, original works that are super imaginative when The Lion King Part 2: The Sequel to the Reboot of the Long-Lost Prequel is making millions of box office dollars. So, until the inevitable live-action remakes of Bambi and Snow White hit theaters and ring in the end times, we must continue to endure Disney's repeated screams of "Give us your money!"
So, what does Disney's malevolent intents have to do with Pixar? Pixar is a subsidiary of Disney, but I do not to hold the same animosity towards the two, because at least Pixar doesn't prey on our nostalgia for older classics, and they still have the decency to pump out something original every now and then. Where I'm getting at with all this is that Onward, Pixar's newest feature is something completely original, and it's a truly refreshing kind of original, which sounds a bit strange when the also original Coco came out only a few years ago. What happened was that Disney dropped us sometime ago in a desert, barren of originality, and Onward is that heavenly freshwater lake that we finally stumbled across.
So, Onward takes place in a world populated by mythical creatures, who once lived by using magic. However, technological advancements through the years eventually overtook magic, and the practice was almost entirely forgotten. In the present day, two elf brothers, Ian (Holland) and Barley (Pratt) Lightfoot live in New Mushroomton city. Ian is a high-schooler who struggles with confidence, and Barley is a free-spirited fan of history and role-playing games. The two brothers live with their mother, Laurel (Louis-Dreyfus), who is dating one of the city's police officers, Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez). On Ian's sixteenth birthday, Laurel gives the brothers a gift from their father, Wilden, who died from illness before Ian was born. The gift is three separate items: a magic staff, a Phoenix gem, and a letter describing a "visitation spell", which, if performed correctly, will resurrect Wilden for one day. Ian attempts the spell, but only succeeds in bringing back half of Wilden's body before the Phoenix gem disintegrates. With only a 24 hour window to see their father again, Ian and Barley set out on a quest to retrieve another Phoenix gem.
One of the dangers with Pixar releasing such highly-regarded animated films over their history is that "great" eventually becomes the norm, and anything less than "great" may be seen as a disappointment. And while I would not consider Onward to be "great", at least great in the sense that we say Toy Story, The Incredibles, or Finding Nemo are great, Onward fits snugly into Pixar's "good" tier, that is, it's a film that takes place in an interesting setting and does enough with its characters, story, and humor to satisfy. Where the film largely falls short, however, is that it just skims the surface when it comes to its world-building and character dynamics, though I think the film also deserves a lot of praise because it goes in a pretty ambitious direction with its story, and it doesn't bring a tidal wave of sentimentality crashing down on you at any point.
- I have to be careful with how I proceed with discussing my main high point of this film, as I could get dangerously close to major spoilers. Here goes: on paper, Onward looks to be largely a fun, fantasy-based adventure, and if that is how the film exactly passed out, it would get by as a fun, charming, albeit safe addition to the Pixar library. What really makes Onward stand out though is that it takes its story in a direction that tackles a message that isn't at all obvious form the get-go. The message is a family matter that I don't think gets anywhere near enough attention, certainly not in other animated films. Now, plot twists are not the first thing I think of when discussing Pixar films (certainly, Pixar has pulled off quite a few plot twists over the years), but Onward's third act is a twist that is not only unexpected, but also quite effective. I honestly think the ending will hit harder for parents than it will for children, especially because of some of the discussions the film's ending could generate in the hours, even days after a first viewing. I think the messaging is also what will make Onward quite memorable going forward, not just the simple fact that, "it's original." Unfortunately, going any farther I'm afraid will start to step into major spoiler territory. One last word: the film indeed has a happy and satisfying conclusion. It just isn't the happy and satisfying conclusion you might guessed initially.
- World-building can be challenging, especially when you're granted only about a 90-95 minute run-time, excluding credits. Regardless, I did find it disappointing that Onward doesn't go deep enough with its world-building, especially since it shows strong potential by mixing high fantasy with modern-day technology. There are a lot of ideas to work with here, such as connecting what happened in the past with the present. You could do something like, "Old-time magic once taught people ways of thinking that could be just as important in the present, where everyone has phones, computers, and other forms of technology." Unfortunately, the high magic of Onward ends up being not much more than a plot device, which isn't the worst thing in the world, but it does seem like a missed opportunity. Pixar has thrived on turning goofy-sounding concepts and worlds into incredibly charming and memorable experiences, and that's not what we get with Onward.
There are several other areas in the film that feel rather shallow as well. Ian and Barley are with each other virtually the entire movie, but we never get quite a full idea of what their relationship has been like over the years. The movie does have the two argue with each other once or twice, but their arguments just end up being little more than petty squabbles and not plot-altering conversations that add to Ian and Barley's respective characterizations. Onward also doesn't show as much creativity as it could with all its characters being mythical creatures. Octavia Spencer voices a Manticore, which should be super cool, except that the script gives her a rushed and almost out-of-nowhere motivation to join the central plot. Also, if Colt Bronco wasn't a name that was thought up at the last minute for a character that is part-horse, then I don't know what is. At the very least though, the movie gives us a hilarious group of biker pixies, and you can be that this adds a ton to the film.
In the end, Onward is perfectly acceptable work from Pixar and another animated feature the whole family will enjoy. The world-building and characterization fall short, but the story and the direction it goes makes this one of Pixar's more memorable features. As always, the animation is gorgeous to look at; that's a high point that always exists, but doesn't need any real discussion. For right now at least, it looks as if Pixar is dedicating more time to purely original films, which I know we will all welcome with open arms. What remains to be seen is will these original works be timeless classics or more additions to Pixar's "good" tier? It's hard to imagine another Cars 2 disaster anytime soon, so I'd say we can go into just about any new Pixar feature with an open mind. Onward had the luxury of being so refreshingly original, and while it doesn't mean we're forever free of sequels and prequels, it does put a little bright spot on a year that desperately needs them.
Here you'll find my reviews on just about any film you may have seen. I try to avoid major spoilers as much as possible. I structure my reviews in the following way: