Pixar’s latest effort, Onward, continues its tradition of exuberant energy, gorgeous animation, and an emotionally satisfying journey. It has been a few years since Pixar has done an original film with several sequels which have been fun but somewhat lacking comparatively to Pixar’s heights. Not to say Onward is entirely original, some of the component pieces of Onward seem cribbed from their own movies; creatures in workaday environments is very much like Monsters Inc. and the emotional catharsis journey is close to Up. But this is a fine return of form by the leader in computer animated family movies that has laughs and twists along the way.
In a world where magical beasts roam, everyone has forgotten magic and just gotten normal jobs, play with their smartphones, watch TV, and act like regular folk. The elf Ian (Tom Holland) is living with his mom, Laurel (Julia Louis–Dreyfus), and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt). On Ian’s 16th birthday, he receives a gift left by his departed father, a wizard’s staff. When Ian tries a spell that will bring his dad back for one day, the gem in the staff breaks and they only bring dad back halfway, as in literally just his legs. Now the brothers set out on a quest to find another gem and bring dad back all the way as their adventure will take them to manticore Corey (Octavia Spencer) and obstacles like dungeons, biker fairies and overzealous cops, one of which is Colt (Mel Rodriquez), who just happens to be their mom’s new boyfriend. But the clock is constantly ticking against them seeing their dad again.
Onward has a sturdy road trip movie format which gives the characters downtime for development. Although it is a bit odd that for all the kerfuffle about their dad, the van they drive around in gets more of an emotional arc than legs dad. The dad as a pair of legs with laundry haphazardly thrown on top to make him look like a person creates some pretty funny sight gags, like in one scene since he’s flopping around the cops think he’s intoxicated. The way the kids communicate is by tapping on his foot since as a kid Barley used to play drums at his feet, and while the first time they tap it is sort of heartfelt after a while it loses emotional potency. Although ultimately, the dad is really a plot device, the emotional core is the relationship between the two brothers.
Holland and Pratt have decent chemistry as the brothers both love and fight each other. Each one has their own distinct personality; Ian is a bit of a nebbish dweeb who is trying to reach out to some new friends at school and attempting a new more assertive personality. A fun scene early on has him writing down notes on his hand but he gets nervous and literally sweats it away. Barley is a rock and roll fantasy nerd archetype and while the whole world as moved on from magic he still wants to keep it alive. Even if he can’t cast magic he knows all about it. There is quite a lot of magical exposition that Pratt delivers throughout but he does it in such a peppy way that it remains entertaining. While Ian is a bit of a pessimist, Barley is the eternal optimist, going for a more dangerous than direct route on their quest simply because the journey is supposed to be difficult.
The mom played by Louis–Dreyfus gets in some good moments, especially when she is paired with Spencer’s Corey, the manticore who has settled into workaday drudgery, forgoing her quests to run a fantasy themed restaurant. One of the movie’s best scenes is when she meets the two brothers and their prodding her slowly causes her to return to her old powerful ways. Rodriquez as the cop is basically the antagonist of the film as he’s their mom’s dopey boyfriend but he isn’t a bad guy villain but just a cop trying to do his job.
The design of the movie is great, even if it doesn’t break new ground in Pixar visually, it’s fun to see fantasy creatures act like everyday folks. The colour scheme of the film is bright and candy coloured creatures which is contrasted with dingy real–world locations. The movie climaxes in a fantasy showdown with building rubble that forms into magical dragon creature, a good metaphor for how the world of Onward occupies a place between the fantastical and the mundane. There are a couple of standout scenes like when Ian uses magic to walk across a bottomless pit which has great tension and laughs. Also the most epic scene is when the boys have to use their trusty van in a last dich effort to escape that is both hilarious and oddly emotional.
Onward is another solid entry into the Pixar Animation Studios output, even though it probably won’t be remembered as a Pixar classic or spawn another franchise. Maybe that’s a good thing because it simply focuses on being a great story entertainingly told. With trolls, elves and dragons acting in a distinctly un–fantasy manner, this gives Onward a unique flair. V
Director: Dan Scanlon
Starring: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt and