It is doubtful that any film studio in the game right now has quite as much expectation behind each project as Pixar does. They have released masterpiece after masterpiece in the past, and because of this each movie of theirs is held to a higher standard than most other film companies. Pixar’s newest film is Onward, a heartwarming animated adventure that takes place in a fantasy world that resembles our own world in everything but the creatures who live in it. The magic has long since disappeared and has been replaced with the technology that we are used to (phones, cars, lightbulbs, etc), making this world full of fantasy creatures less mysterious to viewers. Even with its unique premise, this film never quite reaches the heights of many other Pixar outings, but it never needs to in order to succeed on its own. Onward is a heartwarming tale of family and love that, while never being as fantastic as it clearly wants to be, still leaves viewers with a good experience and an entertaining fantasy quest.
Onward tells the journey of two elven brothers who are given a surprise gift from their dead father on the younger brother’s sixteenth birthday. The gift is a magical scepter and a spell to bring their father back to life for just one day so he can see his grown-up sons. However, when using this spell, they only complete half of it, meaning just the father’s legs remain with them so they still cannot talk to or see him. In order to fully bring him back, they must go on a quest for a gem that will allow them to conduct the rest of the spell, thus bringing their father back before the one day is up. The older brother (Chris Pratt) knows all of the magic lore like the back of his hand and the younger brother (Tom Holland) has no idea what he’s doing but knows that he desperately wants to meet his father. The two venture out into the wild (the city) and stage their own magical quest to hopefully make some more memories to last a lifetime.
This film truly is an adventure movie at its core; it has all the signatures of a hero’s journey. Every single story beat follows the textbook definition of this type of story, yet it never feels as if the entire movie is predictable. If you know what the true purpose of a hero’s journey always is, then you’ll probably be able to predict what the message towards the end of the film ends up being, but this doesn’t stop it from being any more or less heartwarming. In many respects, this film is an ode to many of the fantasy/adventure stories that clearly inspired it, a prime example being Lord of the Rings, of which there are a couple of references. This is also a blatantly personal story from director/writer Dan Scanlen and crew. The messages they have to say about family and the people who are important to us as we grow up are poignant and refreshing–anyone who has siblings or a family they are close with will be able to connect with the message.
What Pixar (and Disney in general) has essentially mastered at this point is the quality of their animation. It isn’t even in the realm of possibility to question the realism of this world; everything just is real, no question. They might as well be making live-action movies at this point with the fantastic attention to detail and the creative character designs in every movie. Highlighting specific facets of the animation which make it look phenomenal is pointless, because while watching, it is difficult to even remember that you are watching an animated film. The amount of time and work that goes into films like this to make them look this amazing is more than most people can imagine, and the animators, as usual, deserve a massive amount of credit here.
What falls short in the chronology of Onward is the actual “quest” part of the adventure. The perils that the two brothers encounter on their way to meet their father are just average obstacles that never feel of any consequence to the protagonists. Some of them are almost annoyingly coincidental in the way that the brothers stumble across them. Also, almost none of the crazy things they come across end up contributing to the final point of the story, so at the end I was left feeling as if the whole movie didn’t even really need to exist. The message is plenty worth it and the movie does justify its existence regardless of the flaws, but the actual events that happen along the way should’ve been far more interesting and involved.
Due to this, the movie never quite flourishes as a whole as much as it probably should have given the deep subject matter and interesting main characters. Onward never fails to make audiences care, nor does it fail at delivering an uplifting and action-packed adventure, but it won’t resonate in audiences’ minds for too long because it never lifts above the fold. That being said, it doesn’t necessarily need to in order to be a serviceable flick, and there’s nothing awful about the family-oriented product this film came out to be. Onward may not be close to films like WALL-E or Up in terms of quality, but that does not mean it isn’t worth checking out with the family and making some new memories.
I give Onward a B+.