Premise: Set in a suburban fantasy world, two teenage elf brothers embark on a quest to discover if there is still magic out there.
In telling the story of two disparate brothers on a time-sensitive quest to temporarily bring their father back to life, Pixar’s Onward recaptures some of the heart and soul of some of the studio’s earliest hits. Onward takes the classic “what if” template that makes Pixar films so magical and creates a charming epic suburban fantasy world plagued by modern technology and consumerism. Though the world building itself is just slightly lacking in the long run, there’s a hefty emotional weight to the story of Ian and Barley Lightfoot that harkens back to some of the studio’s most heartfelt films.
Like Monsters University (also directed by Dan Scanlon), Finding Dory and A Bug’s Life before it, Onward touches on themes of social acceptance, self-worth, and explores the idea of the lovable oaf who will not only self-actualize by movie’s end, but whose worth is made clear to those who admonish them. In that sense, Onward may seem like a hodgepodge of ideas that have worked in previous Pixar films. To an extent, that is accurate. However, the magic of Onward lies in the way it handles its two brother characters.
The way in which socially awkward 16 year old Ian (Tom Holland) plays off of older, fantasy-obsessed and fearless brother Barley (Chris Pratt) is truly the heart and soul of the film. Pratt and Holland share solid chemistry amidst a script that, while not the greatest from Pixar, does their story justice in the emotional moments. Compared to just about any other Pixar movie, Onward‘s emotional arc and its resolution is fairly obvious from the jump. However, it’s the noticeable lack of melodrama and inclusion of urgency to Ian and Barley’s adventure that sets Onward apart in places.
Ian and Barley don’t begin the movie as friends. They don’t seem like very close siblings, either. The thing they have most in common is a shared grief over their dead father. And even that is different for each character as Ian was too young to remember their father when he died and Barley only has a few memories of him. As their quest to find a gem to bring their father back (well, his upper body, at least) unfolds, they grow closer as they start butting heads. This is where Onward really shines. The film carries that chemistry through to a satisfying and heartfelt conclusion that tugs at the heartstrings in that special way for which Pixar films are known.
The supporting players in the film provide some solid comedy support. Octavia Spencer’s role as The Manticore is an absolute scene stealer. In fact, Ian and Barley’s arrival at The Manticore’s Lair is one of the biggest and best laughs the film has. Although The Manticore eventually teams up with the boys’ mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) in a subplot that drags the momentum of the film quite a bit, the third act reconciles their subplot nicely. Their involvement in the action of the final set piece gives the film a good counterbalance to the emotional payoff of the boys’ story.
The world-building leaves a bit to be desired when compared against Pixar’s usually keen eye for detail in past films. All the pieces are there for a richly drawn universe where modern society meets mythological creatures. From an aesthetic standpoint, Onward is gorgeous and resplendent with sight gags. However, there’s a certain lack of distinction to the finer details. It feels as though creatures and characters are introduced as set dressing and nothing more. This gives off a somewhat hollow feel to the world-building. Compared to the detailed monster world of Monster Inc., for example, Onward‘s fantasy city doesn’t feel as lived in or “real.” Instead, the world in Onward feels more like a backdrop than anything.
Thankfully, there is no discernable “merchandising element” to Onward. Sure, there is merchandise to be sold, as it is a Disney film. However, nothing in the film feels like it was created specifically to sell toys or designed to appeal to the broadest audience. There’s no Baby Yoda, Forky, or Babu Frik to be seen in Onward. Thus, the audience is free of distraction and can focus on the story at hand. This is particularly beneficial to the younger crowd, considering Onward dabbles with heavy themes of loss and regret in the face of grief. It’s a comfort knowing Disney and Pixar did not bog down this story with needlessly cute characters meant to go viral.
When it comes down to it, Onward has it where it counts. The bond that Ian and Barley share and develop throughout the film feels like vintage Pixar storytelling magic. The world-building, while not as high caliber as one would expect, still has plenty of gags and a sense of cleverness behind it. Although Onward may not be the best Pixar offering in recent years, it’s led by spectacular voice work from Holland and Pratt. It leaves a memorable impression on audiences with its emotional resolution and will have you yearning for more original content from Pixar.
About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat, Pizza Roll.