Over the course of the 2010s we did received some fun and unique original films from Pixar in the form of “Brave”, “Inside Out”, “The Good Dinosaur” and “Coco” but of the eleven movies the studio released in that time seven of them were sequels creating concern among fans that Pixar was falling into the sequel trap of many studios that they promised they would avoid. Thankfully the new decade looks like a return to original works for Pixar as two original movies are being released in 2020, the forthcoming “Soul” and the new fantasy picture “Onward”. I, along with many others, was privy to a preview screening of “Onward” this weekend giving us a look at what the first mainstream animated movie of the decade has to offer. Telling the story of two elf brothers, played by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, in a world where technology has usurped magic who go on a quest to complete a magic spell granting them one last day with their diseased father, “Onward” promised an imaginative world with a heartwarming adventure the extent of which has been kept pretty tightly under wraps until the movie’s premiere. Well I’m here to spoil that mystery and delve into this new animated feature. Is this another great addition to Pixar’s classic filmography or a rare dud for the studio? Let’s go ONWARD into the review and find out!
“Onward” is directed and partially written by Dan Scanlon, who also directed “Monsters University”, who based the story off of his relationship with his brother after the two lost their father, thus the basic setup of two brothers who go on a quest together to get one final day with their dad. There’s a lot built into the movie that makes it feel much more inspired than that simple premise but the long and short of it is this is a delightful and colorful film that focuses mainly on the very idea of family and how just because someone is not there anymore that doesn’t mean the family is incomplete, it’s just different. I don’t want to spoil too much of what the film has to teach its viewers, but I will go into some of those lessons in this review and add that what we end up learning is as touching, insightful and inspirational as any Pixar film could hope to be staying true to form with the studio’s successful formula of mixing heartwarming and very real life lessons with imaginative imagery and animated fun.
With that said though “Onward” is a pretty basic Pixar piece on its surface. As I said, by now the studio has a pretty solid formula it likes to stick to and “Onward” hits all the right notes. Two main characters at a crossroads in their lives go on an adventure that could change either the world at large or their own smaller reality, usually for the better, offering an important revelation for the audience to hold on to…in other words the same formula used in “Toy Story”, “Finding Nemo”, “Up” etc. but, as usual, the formula never feels old despite its familiarity. “Onward” still feels fresh and insightful and the fact that the movie is sort of self aware about its own “going on a quest” cliche actually helps drive home one of the best themes of the film, that the journey and who you experience it with is more important than the destination. “Onward” also keeps the energy up and even the obvious side quests and filler scenes never get boring or feel superfluous to the story at large. The voice cast, consisting of Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer and more, all sound invested and provide engaging voice work that rises well above other studios by making even the most cliché and mundane moments in the script shine. I was completely invested from start to finish even when I was able to pick out some of the basic flaws, both obvious and well hidden. Again, like most Pixar movies, “Onward” knows what it wants to be and shamelessly embraces it which I can’t help but appreciate especially when it does it so well.
The animation, as you would expect, is top notch bringing us right into this imaginative suburban world based on fairytale creatures. The backgrounds, character designs, color pallets and even small details like water and gravel are all reminders of just how amazing Pixar and its animators are at their jobs. It’s just an all around fun mix of the fantastical and the real and doesn’t oversell the stand-ins for real world elements (like Unicorns acting in place of Raccoons) like many other films would, instead allowing background jokes to remain just that, fun parts of the background that we can appreciate but don’t distract from the main action. This brings me to one element of the movie I did enjoy but I wish was maybe a bit more at the forefront of the tale which is the idea of magic being replaced by technology. When the film started I really though the movie would go in a different direction by focusing on how our idea of fun and living has replaced the adventure of exploration with the adventure of a smart phone. Little hints at this theme of the magic of life being stolen by the simplicity of convenience are scattered throughout the movie but I do feel like it was a minor missed opportunity right within Pixar’s wheelhouse. There was plenty of room to focus a little more on this very timely concept and I don;t feel like it would have overshadowed the family element of the movie one bit, but maybe rather complimented it.
While I genuinely enjoyed most everything about “Onward” and would even call it one of Pixar’s most fun and engaging cinematic experiences in a long time, one issue I did have with it was the finale. I won’t spoil how the last 20 minutes or so plays out but I will say it devolves into a typical fantasy showdown between man and monster which I think was supposed to be symbolic in some way but ends up feeling more formulaic than imaginative. Because most of the movie is a nice mix of simplicity and imagination this finale fell a little flat because it was a bit more of what we would expect from a fantasy film rather than fully subverting expectations to help support the underlying themes. The final conflict puts our heroes on a ticking clock with the fate of their world at stake, but the actual conflict is supposed to be much smaller and more contained. Sure, it opens the door for a nice moment between the brothers than drives home one of the film’s most touching revelations, but I really felt like it could have been handled much better. On the plus side it does create some neat tension and kids will probably enjoy what this finale has to offer, but compared to how well the rest of the movie juggled complexity with simplicity I just feel like the climax could have used a little more creative thought.
Even in spite of the lackluster finale I still recommend “Onward” and overall consider it to be an amazing movie. Beautifully animated and wonderfully acted by its voice cast, this is as engaging and enjoyable a cinematic experience as Pixar has ever provided. It does depend on the studio’s familiar formula a little too much, but like most of the studio’s films it immediately finds its footing and charts its own path with its own identity all the same. I especially loved the themes explored in the story which do provide important lessons for viewers both young and old specifically what truly defines a family, the importance of the journey, and even the idea that the magic and wonder of life is being replaced by the simplicity of technology to the point of excess. In short, this is Pixar true to form providing a wonderful, charming and fun animated future classic I can’t wait to enjoy all over again.