Pixar’s latest film, “Onward,” is far from the animation studio’s best movie. However, while the movie ultimately fails to live up to the likes of “Up,” “WALL-E,” “Toy Story” and “Coco,” “Onward” is still a decent, heartfelt and fun film on its own merits.
The film follows two brothers, Ian and Barley, living in a magical fantasy world... that also has modern technology. Powerful mages and questing heroes once roamed the land until modern comforts like cars and electricity were developed, allowing the old ways of magic and mystery to fade into the past. This concept alone is innovative, although Netflix did produce something similar in 2017 with David Ayer’s “Bright.” It’s exactly the kind of interesting and thoughtful setting Pixar is known for.
The conflict in the film begins when two elf brothers discover an old spell that can bring their father back to life for a single day. Their dad passed away when the boys were very young, and both are desperate for the chance to visit him and make some new memories with a man neither of them ever really knew. The spell goes wrong, bringing the father’s legs into being, but not his upper half. This launches an epic quest through the ruined remnants of the old world as the boys frantically search for an artifact that will allow them to complete the spell and see their dad. Oh, and they only have 24 hours to find it, or their chance will disappear.
The story is emotional at its very heart. The motivation behind the boys’ quest is simply the burning desire to see their father again, no matter for how long. This type of family-driven adventure lends itself extremely well to some hard-hitting emotional moments. The finale is especially effective at making the audience feel something.
Tom Holland and Chris Pratt play Ian and Barley in what proves to be an inspired pairing. The two bounce incredibly well off each other, lending life not only to the characters themselves, but also to their relationship. Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Octavia Spencer play the boys’ mother and a rough old tavern owner domesticated by a corporate buyout respectively.
All the elements of a great Pixar film are here, but somehow “Onward” falls a little short and feels a little empty when compared to the rest of the immensely successful studio’s repertoire. It’s hard to pin down exactly where the film fails.
The worldbuilding admittedly seems a bit shallow, first suggesting a wide world that turned its back on magic decades if not centuries ago, then shrinking the world and shortening the timetable by first having the entire film take place within a small area, then showing young characters that were alive during the magical age. The supporting characters also seem a bit underdeveloped. Aside from Ian and Barley, who do see their share of development, none of the other characters are ever fleshed out.
But what really makes it feel less like a great movie and more like someone’s sorry attempt at recreating a Pixar film is that the characters don’t grow. Audiences are given plenty of insight into what drives Ian and Barley to work so hard to see their dad again, but the brothers don’t actually change as the film progresses.
In “Toy Story,” Woody comes to accept Buzz and the fact that he may have to share Andy’s affections. In “Up,” the grouchy old Carl decides to sacrifice his and Ellie’s dream to help Russell achieve his. In “WALL-E,” the timid little robot gains the courage to hold up the holo-detector for the sake of the human race.
In “Onward,” Ian becomes slightly more assertive, and the change happens at the beginning of the film. And Barley doesn’t seem to change at all. That’s it. The film doesn’t feel satisfying because the characters are static.
Overall, “Onward” has a lot going for it. It’s an emotion-driven adventure in an interesting setting with a great cast. However, it simply doesn’t live up to the high standard of excellence Pixar has established for itself. Maybe it’s not fair to compare “Onward” to Pixar’s best works. The film is certainly better than the studio’s worst (looking at you, “Cars 2”), after all, and it’s still worth the watch.