Review: Onward (2020)

I can already hear the sound of thousands of moms preparing their son’s Halloween costumes. 

On paper, a Pixar movie set in a fantasy world in which Chris Pratt and Tom Holland play brothers, sounds like it should be an undisputed success. And while Onward (2020) undoubtedly has its fair share of charms, the animated adventure just doesn’t seem to live up to the reputation of its studio. From a studio that gave us groundbreaking originals like Toy Story (1995) – check out my review, here – and Inside Out (2015), Onward feels just a little too, “been there, done that.” I really wanted to love this movie and be blown away, but ultimately I was left going, “oh. Okay. Well, that was a nice movie. Might not remember it very much, but I had a perfectly nice time watching that.”

Screen Shot 2020-03-10 at 7.42.29 PM
Credit: imdb.com / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Onward is set in a suburban fantasy world where magic has largely been replaced by technology. When Ian and Barley, two elf brothers, discover a spell that will allow them to speak to their deceased father for a whole day, the pair set out on an epic quest to collect the gem required to finish the spell.

I’m a huge fan of anything fantasy-related and with the exception of a few lacklustre sequels and prequels, Pixar churns out hit after hit. And what a cool premise this movie has! Although, the last time fantasy and the modern era were ambitiously mashed together, we got the dreadfully disappointing Bright (2017). Thankfully, Onward is much better than Bright, but it’s still not as much of a home run as I was expecting it to be. I’m not trying to shit on this perfectly adequate movie, but it just doesn’t have the same impact or (potential) longevity as Toy Story or Finding Nemo (2003). It felt as though instead of reaching for the heights that Pixar normally does, they just decided to phone this one in.

It feels that way in everything from plot, to characters, hell, even in the animation! Onward is beautiful to look at, but somehow less visually-dazzling than last year’s Toy Story 4 (2019). By the way, check out my review for that movie, here. The emotional drive to the story, to allow the brothers the chance to connect to their departed father, is tender, and moving, and…the only thing that really sets this movie apart from others, both Pixar and Disney alike.

The quest Ian and Barley embark on is not nearly exciting enough. Which is SUCH a letdown because hello, the best part of any fantasy movie is the harrowing quest the heroes set out on! In Onward, the quest is pretty meh. It’s basically just a collection of car chases, and Ian switching off between being terrible at magic, and then learning how to perform magic flawlessly. Everything was explained with ease and there were never any significant challenges to well, challenge, the main characters. Scenes that are set up to be full of excitement and action end up only delivering a small dosage of either, and the consequences of the situation never feel very serious. Onward is a straightforward adventure that honestly feel like it’s going through the motions.

Really, the most engaging action scenes by far come at the movie’s finale. It’s a cool and exciting climax that utilizes the characters in a great way, but even so, it still feels like the movie just breezes through it. In fact, the whole movie just kind of breezes along. Which is fine if your goal as a viewer is just to reach the end credits, but it does little to challenge the protagonists to grow, or give them any time to stop and reflect or take an emotional beat. Oh, don’t get me wrong, Pixar still delivers on the family-oriented feels and trust and believe, there’s an amazing emotional breakthrough that will speak to any pair of brothers who watch this movie. Still, it’s average when compared to the rollercoaster ride most Pixar movies take us on.

Onward is well made and a fine enough adventure-story, but its strongest asset by far is its voice cast. Pratt and Holland, as Barley and Ian respectively, are sensational as brothers. They share an easygoing rapport that sounds as natural as if they had truly grown up in the same house. Pratt and Holland embody their characters perfectly, as does the rest of this exceptionally talented cast. Let me tell you, I was NOT expecting Octavia Spencer as The Manticore to be the standout of this movie, but oh my God, she steals absolutely every scene she’s in. Good for her because I love Octavia Spencer. Spencer and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who plays the boys mother, Laurel, bring the comedic relief to Onward, an element that once again, the movie doesn’t quite deliver on. There are some puns and visual gags that are sure to make you snicker, but they’re strongly reminiscent of movies like Monster’s, Inc and Shrek (2001). Seriously, I wasn’t kidding when I said Onward feels a little, “been there, done that.”

Not Pixar’s best but certainly not its worst, Onward will be perfectly pleasing to watch at home on the couch when it comes available on Disney+. Which, because of certain sour events transpiring in the world right now, will be April 3rd. Well, good for Pixar, I say! Onward might not end up changing the game like Inside Out or The Incredibles (2004), but it may just cast its spell on long-time fans of the animation juggernaut.

Will you be watching Onward? What are your favourite Pixar movies?

Let me know in the comments or on social media!

 

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