Onward Review: Pixar’s latest is unfortunately their most forgettable
With Pixar seemingly done with crafting sequels to their classic films, a new year and a new decade marks a new directions for one of the best animation studios in the industry as they release not one, but two original films – starting with writer/director Dan Scanlan’s Onward.
The film brings viewers into a strange, new magical land where magic was the center to every creature that roamed and a key component to everyday life. However, as more technological advances were made, the magical elements of the world became a distant memory and a perfect bedtime story of what once was. It’s this concept that could’ve made Onward a very compelling story that reflects our own world’s ever-growing dependence and love on technology, but it doesn’t utilize this concept at all. It’s only used as a backdrop for the film’s central adventure and some visual gags – like pixies and winged monsters that have forgotten how to fly and mythical creatures taking driving lessons and participating in other typical day to day activities. It’s actually shocking how the film doesn’t want to explore this incredibly relatable concept or implement it into the film’s central adventure of two elf brother, Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) and Barley (voiced by Chris Pratt), looking to reunite with their father for one last day.
While Ian would rather think about his deceased father and the more daily struggles he faces in not having many friends and worrying about his driver’s test, Barley has a much more adventurous spirit than Ian and is obsessed with the myths and magic of the olden days. On Ian’s 16th birthday, their mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) reveals that their father left both of them with a gift for them to have when they’ve grown up – a magical staff. Along with the splintery staff, their father has left them with a spell that allows their father to return for one day in order to see who they grew up to be. While Barley’s attempts to use the spell only end in failure, Ian is able to bring their father back. However, after Ian fails to contain the power until the spell finishes, the two brother are only left with the bottom half of their father and a 24 hour time limit to finish the spell before their chance to reunite with their father is gone forever. So, the two embark on a quest to finish the spell and see their father.
One of the strongest and most compelling aspects about Onward is the two brothers’ desire to see their father again and it fleshes out their characters and creates a very emotional story. With moments like Ian acting out a conversation between him and his father, who he has no memories of, through an old voice recording and Barley having only a few memories, both good and bad, that remind him of his father, it’s impossible not to find yourself connecting to the genuine heart at the center of their journey. Even with only the bottom half of their father, there’re still plenty of very touching moments – like him acknowledging their presence through tapping their feet with his and very charming dance sequence that instantly brings a smile to your face. It all builds to the tear-jerking end of their adventure that captures and boasts every kind of word that should comes at the end of a classic adventure – surprise, passion, humbleness, and satisfaction.
Pratt and Holland definitely amplify these strong emotional moments with solid voice work that stems from a great chemistry. Pratt is great as Barley and every time he tells Ian to say spells with his “Heart’s fire” and is obsessive about their adventure being like a classic mythical quest, he brings it out in a way that’s very genuine and fun. Holland is also solid, but it’s hard not to feel like he’s becoming a one-note typecast after playing Spider-Man. Whether it’s the direction he’s given or it’s just his performance, there’s a lack of uniqueness to his voice and performance that makes you believe that he blends into being Ian. There’re times where he just sounds like Peter Parker or Walter in Spies in Disguise and it makes me worried that he just isn’t bringing anything unique to the characters he plays.
However, the main issues with Onward come from everything that’s not involved with Ian and Barley trying to reunite with their father. The “conflicts” between Ian and Barley surrounding Barley’s overzealous attitude that generally leads to disaster is really weak and comes off in very generic fashion. Barley’s just simply labeled as a screw-up constantly and every time their conflicts come into play it’s just as quickly diminished in an unsatisfying fashion. Even the entire sequence of Ian realizing how much Barley has played into his life comes off very forced as the film doesn’t build a whole lot around it to make it stronger.
Worst of all, their quirks and character traits, like Barley being obsessed with the magical days of the old world and Ian more focused on being like his dad rather than finding his own growth, are utilized at all and lack any sort of emotional weight. There could’ve been some interesting conflicts that connect to the changing world around them with Barley trying to salvage old relics of the old world and Ian having a more modern and future-minded mentality. It could’ve even fleshed out the world more and gave viewers something to think about with technology and losing communication, but it never decides to go deeper than the surface-level traits it presents and misses out on the opportunity to do add something more meaningful.
There’s also a side-plot that involves their mom working with the Manticore (voiced by Octavia Spencer) trying to save Ian and Barley that’s completely pointless and very unnecessary. There’s no real arc or connection to have with it and there’s no real weight to anything that they end up doing. It’s just something to fill time and the humor attached to it doesn’t ever work.
Really most of the humor falls flat outside of the more visually driven jokes and the film is just overly bland for a Pixar adventure. Most of the lines and running gags never really worked and the only times that you find yourself laughing are with visually humorous moments that mostly stem from the antics of the bottom half dad. Things like seeing him and his makeshift top half interact with the world and the Manticore’s lair be turned in a children’s restaurant with oversized mascot and coloring activities really worked well with Pixar’s always great looking animation.
However, sometimes the visual humor works against the more serious moments of the film, especially the final obstacles they face, and it makes it hard to connect to the more emotionally serious moments because it’s always undercut by a joke. Even the adventure itself isn’t all that grand or memorable and the way Ian learns new spells was very lazy. The writing for Ian learning new spells from Barley’s Dungeons and Dragons kind of game was ripped straight out of a video game as he basically learns a new spell with each “level” or challenge they encounter. It was lazy writing at its best and it never comes across as empowering or special when it comes.
It’s unfortunate that while Onward marks a return to Pixar going back to telling original stories, it’s a return that’s easily one of Pixar’s blandest and most forgettable films. Even though it boasts a heart-warming family adventure that’s beautifully animated, it simply doesn’t capture its potential and is a bottom-tier movie in Pixar’s incredible filmography. Take that last part for what you will, but Onward lacks the aspiring characteristics for what Pixar should be able to deliver is just underwhelming and disappointing.