Dan's Review: "Onward" proves Pixar still has some magic left
Mar 06, 2020 12:06PM
By Dan Metcalf
Chris Pratt and Tom Holland in Onward - © 2020 Disney/Pixar.
Rated PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements.
Starring Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Mel Rodriguez, Kyle Bornheimer, Lena Waithe, Ali Wong, Grey Griffin, Tracey Ullman, Wilmer Valderrama, George Psarras, John Ratzenberger, and Dave Foley.
Written by Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, and Keith Bunin.
Directed by Dan Scanlon.
It looks like the folks at Pixar are sliding away from a mild case of “sequelitis.” After dabbling with a third Cars, a fourth Toy Story, a second Finding Nemo/Dory, a second Monsters Inc./University and a second Incredibles, we’re back to some of that classic Pixar innovation with original home runs like Inside Out, Coco, and this week’s release of Onward. Yes, we know the animation studio known for setting the bar has a somewhat counterintuitive association with the Disney machine; an entertainment behemoth that requires absolute and total subservience to the idea that you must squeeze the very last molecule of profit from any property. Here’s hoping that the creative minds behind Pixar continue to buck Disney’s lack of originality with new content like Onward.
Set in a fantasy world, It’s the story of two brothers, Ian and Barley Lightfoot (Tom Holland and Chris Pratt), two elves (of sorts) living in a modern society that has abandoned its magical past of wizardry and wonder. The young men live with their mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and stepfather Colt (Mel Rodriguez), a centaur and police officer. The boys’ father passed away when Ian was a baby and Barley was in preschool. Socially awkward, Ian seeks to know more about his late father, while Barley focuses his life on role-playing games and research on the legendary magic of the ancient past. On Ian’s sixteenth birthday, his mom bequeaths to him a gift from his dad, a wizard’s staff and an incantation that will allow the deceased to appear for one day to spend with his sons. Being familiar with magical spells from his “research” Barley tries and fails to summon his dad. Ian also tries and soon discovers that he has wizard powers by bringing his dad back – at least the lower half of his body – until the magical stone inserted in the staff disintegrates. Stuck with their dad’s waist-down body, the boys go on a quest to find another magical stone to try and get the rest of Dad back in time to spend some quality hours together. Their quest takes them to a manticore named Corey (Octavia Spencer) who provides a map to the stone’s location. Along the way, Barley teaches Ian more spells, and the younger wizard begins to develop his talents, despite a few magical mishaps. As their quest drags on into the next day, the boys must summon all their love, patience, and courage to reach their goal, but not before facing an unknown curse that awaits them at end of their journey.
Onward a is a delightful tale of family devotion in the face of profound loss, with an added dimension of cultural relevance. The setting of a society removed from its “magic” certainly rings true, with a clear correlation for our own contemporary society addicted to technology that disconnects us from relationships that matter.
But it’s the family at the heart of Onward that sets it apart from other films (Coco notwithstanding) of this sort. There is such a beautiful theme and resolution of the relationship between the boys and their dad, even though you might not sense it during the movie’s middle act, which feels like a series of gags rather than a coherent narrative. The final act is a beautiful reminder of what family, love, and sacrifice mean, without getting too cheesy. There is a minor plot device of “Using what you’ve got” in Onward that may seem somewhat pedestrian to the story, but there is a deeper meaning of the phrase if you pay close attention, especially when you apply it to family.
There is substantial humor throughout the movie, but not the belly-laughs you may be accustomed to in other Pixar films. One recurring gag that works is the occasional appearance of feral unicorns, no longer useful after the airplane is invented. This kind of subtle commentary suggests that while we may live in a world with more tech and less enchantment, Onward proves there’s still a little magic left.