April 16, 2020

“Onward” Review: A Fun Fantasy, But Doesn't Live Up to All Pixar Standards

Barley (Chris Pratt) and Ian (Tom Holland)
Crying at the movies isn’t all that uncommon. If something’s sad, and it causes emotions to surface, it’s worth it just to get it all out. But there are some movies that you don’t expect to evoke melancholy, that impress you with their ability to bring tears to your eyes.

The latest to do this for me was Pixar’s latest, Onward, set in a world where fantastical and magical creatures evolved into a modern society in place of humanity. Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) is a young elf who is trying to figure out who he is on his sixteenth birthday. His brother Barley (Chris Pratt) tries to make it a special day for Ian, but only served to embarrass Ian with his boisterous and unabashed love of the enchanting ways of the past, where wizards handled problems through magical means. That was centuries ago, though, and modern technology has taken over the world, creating potential for an interesting bit of social commentary.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t choose to go this route, instead opting to pursue a more emotional thread for its central plot. Ian and Barley’s mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), gives the boys a gift from their deceased father, a spell enabling them to bring him back to life for one day. However, the spell goes wrong, and the boys embark on a quest to correct it so they can spend as much time with their dad as possible.

Like most Pixar films, Onward isn’t afraid to examine themes of death and loss. This is undoubtedly a familiar theme for Pixar fans (they tend to explore a surprising amount of adult themes, for “kid-friendly” films), but Onward isn’t as intense and forward with those themes as much as other Pixar films. Ian and Barley’s relationship is given center stage, and the death of their father simply serves as a plot device for the character development to happen around.

Don’t let the heavy themes fool you, though: at its core, Onward is an adventure tale, taking the protagonists from one place to the next, with an ultimate goal and a prize waiting for them at the end of their journey. It’s entertaining, but clichéd, missing the mark of truly nailing the distinctive charm of previous Pixar films like Wall-ECoco and Monsters Inc that makes them indisputably special and unmatched.

Given the premise, you may not expect it to be as emotionally hard-hitting as other Pixar classics, but Onward certainly delivers on the emotion, building up throughout the film, concluding in a cathartic release you didn’t know you needed. It’s definitely one of Pixar’s more subtle emotional arcs (and that’s saying something), but it’s sentimental all the same.

Octavia Spencer guest stars as Corey the Manticore

Although Onward certainly puts an interesting spin on the clichéd coming-of-age storyline, although the fantasy world it’s set in feels all too familiar. Although it tries to differentiate itself from other established fictional worlds, it’s not divergent enough to be interesting on its own. Then again, the world isn’t the story’s primary focus, as it’s a mainly character-driven story, so it’s alright that the setting isn’t as unique as it could have been. This one, though, I can forgive.

Additionally, being largely comprised of A-listers, the voice cats surprisingly isn’t anything special or notable. Sure, it’s fun to hear the characters played by the recognizable voices of iconic actors like Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, but their voices aren’t particularly as unique or distinctive as one might expect. As much as I love Pratt and Holland, their characters could have been voices by other actors and not much else would have to be changed.

It isn’t Pixar’s best, but it’s certainly not their worst. Onward is an enjoyable adventure flick with an effective family-centered message, well-developed characters and an engaging premise. It’s not quite as laugh-out-loud as other Pixar creations, but it’s still heartwarming and exciting enough to justify a viewing. [Grade: A-]

Director: Dan Scanlon
Writer: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin
Starring: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer
Rated: PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements
Available: Disney+
Fun Fact: Triple Dent Gum (from Inside Out) is sold at the gas station that Ian and Barley visit.

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