Where the Pixar studio shines best is in its ability to build lushly developed worlds and conceiving wonderfully mature stories around all the manic fun. Onward keeps that tradition going by building a land of magical creatures while embracing a story of family and loss. Even though this assembly has pretty much become par for the course of this studio, it’s still a refreshing reminder of how much heart is placed within vivid animation.
Onward starts off in a fantasy realm where magic and creatures cavorted in harmony. That magic has all but gone now as towering castles are soon replaced by looming skyscrapers. The magic hadn’t vanished because of some evil force that swept throughout the land. The true villain of magic was industrialization.
While the film never outright states this as the issue, it certainly seems to be what hinders the world when it comes to magic. There is a power to create light and heal others, even revive those brought back from the dead. And yet the world of elves and fairies seems to embrace technology merely because it appears easier to conjure. Yet it also seems to be what leads to the downfall of one character because of health problems. Something to ponder when the black knight of this story is ultimately a building.
Two and a Half Elves
The central story isn’t so much about a fantasy world’s downfall to technology but of family. Teenager Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) had grown up with a loving mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) but without his father, having died before he was born. His older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) has only a few lingering memories. The two brothers couldn’t be more different. Ian is unsure of himself and awkward with his emotions while Barley is eccentric and adventurous in his love for Dungeons and Dragons.
They both miss their dad but may have a chance to get to see him one more time. A left-behind wand of their father contains the power to revive him for one day only. After some tinkering, they figure it out but the crystal only lasts for half of the spell. Now they only have half a dad and are sent on an adventure to attain another crystal and finish the spell before dad is gone. They certainly don’t want their last memories of him to be his legs.
A Whole New Pixar World
For being an urban fantasy where unicorns are as pesky as deer and fairies run in intimidating gangs, one might think Pixar would linger too much on the gags of such a world. This is thankfully not the case with Pixar pictures. A lesser film may have spent too much time trying to make jokes about fantasy creatures occupying a modern world. Thanks to a strong script, this adventure never strays from its grander aspects. There’s almost a moment when this happens when the duo encounters some faires for a car chase that thankfully doesn’t drag on for too long.
That being said, the detail is extraordinary. There’s a believable structure to the world that feels relatable and lived-in. This is best seen through Barley, obsessed with D&D which is referred to more as historical fiction. He speaks of different age and embraces it through his rusty old van, complete with a painted-on pegasus and dashboard falling apart. He’s that messy older brother of great encouragement from his ripped-up seat of much duct tape.
A Family Fantasy Film
Akin to Pixar’s Coco, this is a fantastically emotional adventure of a family connecting over a loss. I really dug how Ian and Barley connect over their journey as it becomes less about the crystal they need and more about the closure they seek. The two realize there are different things they want from their father and have issues that they may need to resolve themselves. One scene I didn’t expect was Barley admitting he felt for guilt for not wanting to see his father dying in the hospital. It’s a very real emotion feeling that I did not expect to see so well captured with an animated movie of this nature.
There’s also a surprisingly fun B-plot of Laurel seeking out her boys with the aid of a seemingly over-the-hill manticore called Corey (Octavia Spencer). Though Corey once ran a tavern to send adventurers in the right direction, she converted her place of business into a yuppie style restaurant. She soon has a midlife crisis and aims to break out of her shell with Laurel in a strong showcase of women breaking out of their roles. So if you ever wanted to see a sweater-wearing mom of a pear body type slaughtering a dragon, have I got the Pixar film for you!
While Onward almost meanders in a few car chases, its central core remains warm and heartfelt. The world is more richly defined so it’s not like Cars, where we’re questioning why fairies would need motorcycles when they could just fly (there’s just enough of a reason for this). The characters are far more than their mere archetypes from the first act that it’s a lot of fun to watch them grow. As far as Pixar weepers go, I must admit the climax of coming to terms with the loss of a parent and learning to let go in more ways than one was undeniably touching. These are the kinds of masterpieces Pixar excels at and hopefully will be more plentiful in the future.
What did you think of Onward? Let us know in the comments below and check out our review of Disney’s previous animated feature, Frozen II.
A strong venture by Pixar into a realm of family and fantasy
- Wildly Imaginative Setting
- Heartfelt Characters
- Thoughtful Screenplay
- Mild Meandering Car Chase
- Some Expected Gags
- Lingering Industrialization Question