Onward is an animated coming of age story from Disney’s Pixar and directed by Dan Scanlon. It stars Chris Pratt and Tom Holland as two brothers, Barley (Pratt) and Ian (Holland) Lightfoot, two brothers who lost their father at a young age. The two brothers are opposites, Barley is adventurous and free and Ian is in his shell and scared. But the interesting thing about this new original IP is that the brothers are elves and their adventure is deeply rooted in high fantasy.
On Ian’s 16th birthday their mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gives the boys a present from their deceased dad with the instructions that this present shall be given to both of them once they both are of the age of 16. The present contains a magical staff and spell that allows the boys to resurrect their father for one last day. The brothers attempt to resurrect their father only to fail midway through the spell which leaves them with a father, but only from the waist down. This sparks the boys on a journey using Barley’s quest book to complete putting their father back together again.
As Barley and Ian go on their quest, they have to figure out situations by not only using their individual strengths but by listening to each other. While Barley is fearless, he lacks the skills to perform magic and the opposite end, his little brother fears everything but has the one skill that will not only complete their quest but ultimately save them from dangerous situations. From this dynamic, you get a story that is as much about brotherhood as it is about passing through grief. You see growth between the two brothers, but it plays out as you would expect it to.
But ultimately, the payoff of brotherhood doesn’t come until the end of the film, leaving the rest of it hinging on the viewer having a good emotional connection to their own fathers to feel something. While this isn’t necessarily bad, it makes the film hard to connect to if you don’t have father or at least a connection to one. There isn’t much to hold onto emotionally if you don’t connect to it right away and this is because of how the film uses or rather doesn’t use, it’s setting.
Onward is an interesting take on high fantasy and isn’t necessarily what you would expect out of the genre. The world is populated with elves, trolls, mermaids, centaurs, unicorns, and other magical creatures, but after the discovery of new technology, they have abandoned their dependence and interest in magic. This abandonment and lack of interest in the learning magic over the years has caused this once magical land to become a more modern-day setting resembling our own. The creatures have lost their abilities to perform even simple tasks such as flying and even the most majestic of magical creatures are rummaging in the trash like every-day raccoons.
When it comes to exploring the magic left in the world, Barley’s quest book is the guide. Taking something magical and turning it familiar, the quest book is a history book that has become a D&D game and character cards that come straight from Magic the Gathering. This will easily form a connection with audiences and works as a tool for exposition while also showcasing how much the world of Onward has lost with new technologies.
While Onward has the perks of a magical world and it’s showcased, it falls flat because it always feels small and contained. As a fan of fantasy and animation, Onward feels more like a standard Pixar film with fantasy pasted on to it instead of a film that uses the elements of the genre to affect the storytelling and make it something unique. The emotion that is injected into the movie is what the movie relies on. But if you’re not hit in the feels immediately and connect with it, you notice just how thin the plot is and how the standard children’s animation narrative jumps out. A parent dies, a kid learns to process the event, the kid grows, moral lesson taught. It’s a formula that the studio knows well and has profited from but it just isn’t enough, especially given how much could have been done in this reimagining of fantasy. And to be honest, with 2019’s Abominable, it’s hard not to compare this formula to a place where it was done better.
Overall, Onward is a generic Disney Pixar film that drops you into an emotional journey and you are either called to it emotionally, or you’re not. Given that film is focused on the bonds between father and son, those with strong connections or have lost a family member will be captivated, but for others, they may find it lackluster. That said, the ending saves the film, subverting your expectations and asking the viewer to understand the value of what they have had all along. Onward is not a bad movie, but it is a movie you have to see yourself in, in order to get anything from it.
Onward is playing in theaters nationwide.
Onward is a generic Disney Pixar film that drops you into an emotional journey and you are either called to it emotionally, or you’re not. Given that film is focused on the bonds between father and son, those with strong connections or have lost a family member will be captivated, but for others, they may find it lackluster.