Looking at the imagination of Pixar, there’s a lot to like about the way they can meld a relatable reality with the fantastical. Whether it’s the adult sensibilities melded with the retro-futuristic world found in The Incredibles, the idea of dinosaurs still existing in modern times for The Good Dinosaur, or whatever sort of apocalyptic virus that wiped out the world and led to the evolution of vehicles, as seen in Cars, the ideas are seemingly limitless. Onward embraces its imagination by presenting a world where fantasy creatures and magic exist in a world parallel to what we see in the 21st century. The result allows for a level of speculation that I remain intrigued by, but I’m still happy to settle for the emotional father and sons story it chooses to tell.
Onward revolves around a teenaged Elf, Ian (voiced by Tom Holland), with a handle on social awkwardness. His elder brother Barley (Chris Pratt) is a rebel obsessed with magic and older tales of fantasy. As a birthday gift from their late father, Ian receives a wizard staff with a spell that can bring their dad back for 24 hours. Unfortunately, they only bring back half of him (the bottom half), leading the brothers (and their dad’s legs) to go on a quest to find a way to bring back the rest.
The last attempt to merge a fantasy world with modern times was the unfortunate Netflix film Bright. Fortunately, Pixar is not really down to make the ugliest film possible, complete with non-stop cursing and a nihilistic streak to take the place of story, character, and wonder. Director and co-writer Dan Scanlon has a good head on his shoulders (and presumably both lets attached) to provide just enough table setting as far as the world goes, before relying on the family dynamic to create an entertaining journey. The result makes for a fun road trip movie with core ideas that land.
Part of this comes down to how to juggle the high concept with the personal story. Being an animated comedy, yes, there is plenty of emphasis on sight gags, character designs, and even the dialogue, as far as referencing the fantasy aspect. Fortunately, it is easy to rely on Pixar to balance the more kid-friendly moments with some sly takes on what works for a comedy all audiences can appreciate. At the same time, the banter between Ian and Barley plays well for the film’s sibling-based concept. There’s also a good amount of physical humor when dealing with how to handle their dad’s legs.
Along with Holland and Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus steps in as Laurel, mother of the two boys. She eventually joins up with Octavia Spencer’s character, Corey, the manticore (that’s a creature usually composed of a human head, the body of a lion, and a scorpion’s tail). Along with Mel Rodriguez as a centaur cop and Laurel’s boyfriend, these adult characters make up the B-plot of characters trying to find the boys, ideally stopping them from releasing a dangerous side effect of their goal. With these characters, there is a lot more fun to be had, as it plays off the established world.
Perhaps there could have been a way to tighten up the middle section of the film, or the writing just didn’t quite appeal to me as much, but while entertaining, the second act does prove to be less effective. Relying on the general concepts found in a road trip movie means hitting certain familiar bits that help define characters. I’m all for that, but some of these areas are not as fresh as other Pixar films.
However, much like Scanlon’s previous Pixar film, Monsters University, Onward gets a huge boost forward in its final minutes. Between what has been established for the characters, the stakes on display, and the rhythm of the actions taking place, a lot of excitement is balanced well by Pixar’s continued ability to generate real emotions in their films. Perhaps mileage may vary depending on certain familial relationships, but there is a lot to grasp onto in how Onward builds to a fitting conclusion.
There’s a lot to like about the overall designs found in this film as well. I was into the way magic was utilized. Between the wizard staff and the use of spells, I had a lot of fun falling for the wonder put on display and shared by the characters on screen. And much like a certain Cars sequel that most people dislike, I was actually intrigued by the questions I had about the world on display, rather than annoyed by the answers I didn’t get. That’s not to say I need Onward 2: The Crimes of the Manticore, but enough is going on here to make me satisfied with the richness of what was developed.
As an original Pixar adventure with plenty of fun to be had, there’s plenty to enjoy in Onward. Whether or not it immediately stands out as one of the high points for a very consistent studio, there is plenty to take away with a feeling of happiness to go with it. The characters are fun, the world-building is interesting and leads to a lot of good humor, and the core story finds some great emotional points to help it all come together quite well. Come what may with Pixar’s next original feature, I was happy going forward with Onward.