Their quest begineth.
While Onward, Pixar’s 22nd fully animated feature film, doesn’t exactly knock it out of the park, it at least marks a return to form for the animation behemoth, who, for decades, have held the gold standard for contemporary all-ages entertainment after the wildly inventive Toy Story won the hearts of moviegoers everywhere. Back in 1995, the ground-breaking adventure of pull-string cowboy doll Woody and his souped-up space-ranger pal Buzz set the bar high, and Pixar has managed to keep it that way for eons, becoming pioneers in the arena of 3D animation. Known for their A-grade family-oriented fare, Pixar released instant classics such as 2008’s WALL•E and 09’s Up in the subsequent years, emotionally rich and layered tales exploring complex themes that spoke to both children and adults; the studio also received a ton of accolades for their innovation and imagination. Recently, however, the flood of unnecessary sequels and prequels coming out of Pixar’s gate — films like Monsters University (2013), Finding Dory (2016), and last year’s Toy Story 4 — have indicated that, in terms of quality storytelling, the once-unstoppable animation giant had begun to falter, with Walt Disney Animation stealing their thunder and taking the top spot — all one needs to do is look at Frozen (2013) or Moana (2017) for proof.
Fortunately, Onward, a film about rediscovering lost magic, allows Pixar, in a meta kind of way, to recapture and restore some of its own lost glory and wonder, simultaneously taking audiences on an enjoyably bro-centric road-trip quest set in a fantastical world where the once-prevalent magic and enchantment has all but faded, thanks to technological breakthroughs such as electricity and the motor vehicle — coz why bother conjuring fire to generate light when all one needs to do is flip a switch?
Directed by Dan Scanlon, Monsters University (2013) — who shares a story and writing credit with Keith Bunin and Jason Headley — Onward opens with a brief prologue, detailing the fall of wizardry before it cuts to a more mundane modern day. Enter elf Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), a shy and awkward high-schooler lacking confidence, who lives in the suburban city of New Mushroomton with his supportive mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and overweight slacker big bro, Barley (Chris Pratt), a history and role-playing game fanatic who longs for adventure, using his gap year to lounge about in his heavily-graffitied van ‘Guinevere’ and play Quests of Yore, an RPG that harks back to former times where magic wasn’t so long forgotten. As luck would have it, on his sixteenth birthday, Ian gets a once-in-a-lifetime chance to hang out his deceased dad Wilden (Kyle Bornheimer), who tragically died before he was born.
You see, our birthday boy receives a special gift from his father for the milestone event: a charmed staff, a rare Phoenix Gem, and a letter describing a ‘visitation spell’ that can resurrect Wilden for one day — and this is everything Ian has ever dreamt of, having always wanted to spend a single day with his dad. Regrettably, the enchantment only ‘half works,’ as just the lower portion of Wilden’s body is reformed before the gem disintegrates. Barley, of course, being all-knowing when it comes to Quests of Yore, believes that he can help his little bro locate another stone, giving them a chance to fully restore their father before the spell’s 24 hours are up, and the enchantment wears off. And so, the boys, disguising their pop waist up as a sunglasses-and-cap wearing comrade, ride off across the land via the gallant Guinevere, embarking on an old school quest, where their brotherly bond and mettle is tested, this passage working as a path to maturity for our dissimilar heroes — who are forced to confront their inner and outer fears and find common ground on this self-realizing expedition.
From the get-go, it’s evident that Scanlon is passionate about the project — the story was inspired by the filmmaker’s real-life relationship with his older brother and their shared yearning for wanting to know more about their father, who passed away when the director was a young boy. And there’s a real affinity for the Dungeons & Dragons crowd/ culture, too, the film possessing a fun role-playing vibe and sense of sprawling adventure — D&D nerds will get a charge out of seeing the dreaded Gelatinous Cube, a ten-foot block of transparent jellylike ooze able to absorb and digest living matter, which our travelers come face-to-face with while on their journey.
In true Pixar fashion, the script nicely balances comedy, action, and pathos, Onward exploring the touching theme of lost loved ones, as well as brotherly bonds, with Ian and Barley unearthing their own connection and learning to lean on one another while on their epic quest. Interestingly, the multitude of challenges faced by the pair wind up being physical manifestations of their flaws and insecurities, and this really drives some of the film’s messages and ideas home — a hurdle that sees the reserved and uncertain Ian literally having to believe in himself in order to cross an invisible bridge wholly stands out.
There’s also loads of action and excitement; we are treated to a great sequence where the Lightfoot lads rub a gang of punky sprite bikers (led by Grey Griffin) the wrong way — they ride motorcycles because they can’t remember how to fly — resulting in a super-charged on-road pursuit. But frankly, so much of this film rests on the shoulders of its climax, which takes some unexpected turns — some might love it, others maybe not. For me, it’s the third act that totally makes Onward worth the trip — besides the finale features a fearsome dragon (and who doesn’t love dragons?), assembled out of the wreckage of the local high school by way of an ancient curse.
As one would expect, the animation is second to none, Pixar melding photorealistic backdrops with their more traditional cartoony character designs; granted, some have criticized the film for the elven brothers’ lack of ‘good’ looks! — yes, this is really a thing! Moreover, Scanlon has likened the movie’s fantastical urban landscape to ‘anything that would be on the side of a van in the ‘70s,’ and his comment couldn’t be more accurate, as Onward’s aesthetic feels like the embodiment of the romanticized era of classic rock. It’s also fun to see how the mystical citizens (trolls, elves, and mermaids, for example) have been worked into our present way of life — there’s a droll take on unicorns, which sees them not as rainbow-pooing ponies but vicious trash eating vermin.
And adults are sure to delight in spotting the plethora of cool fantasy pop culture references — there’s a grocery store dubbed Sword in the Scone, a fast-food restaurant’s menu item listed as Second Breakfast, while Mountain Dew has been renamed Mountain Doom, the latter two both winks to J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. It’s a bummer, though, that the unique setting isn’t fully capitalized on, as once the narrative gets going, the focus is on the brothers’ emotional arc and the many obstacles they encounter, not the environment surrounding them. The thunderous orchestral score, composed by Jeff and Mychael Danna, The Good Dinosaur (2015), is also notable, bolstering the proceedings with all the right beats.
The voice-cast is eager to please. The dynamic duo of the burly Chris Pratt, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), and the more nervous Tom Holland — who did surprisingly well in last year’s Spies in Disguise — are a perfect fit for the miss-matched protagonists. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Enough Said (2013), is given a meaty role as the boys’ mother, who, upon hearing of her kids’ trouble, doesn’t just sit around on the sidelines, and instead, risks her own life to save her family — it’s an awesome role, and a step in the right direction for on-screen female representation. Speaking of the ladies, Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures (2016), does a stellar job as Corey, a fierce bat-like lion creature known as The Manticore, who retired her once adventurous ways to open a medieval-themed restaurant, The Tavern — she has plenty to do here as well. Heck, even Lena Waithe, Ready Player One (2018), makes the most of a small but memorable part voicing Disney’s first-ever openly LGBTQ animated character, Officer Spector. Oh, speaking of the cops, Mel Rodriguez, Little Miss Sunshine (2006), is spot-on as Colt Bronco, a no-nonsense centaur (half-man half-horse) police officer who’s dating Laurel, and is simultaneously trying (although struggling) to connect with her two sons. Though more of a walking corpse à la Weekend at Bernie’s (1989), Wilden — who’s voiced by Kyle Bornheimer — provides plenty of physical comedy, klutzily stumbling in and out of trouble — he even gets a rock-n-roll dance scene, which is certain to have the kids smiling.
Ultimately, Onward won’t change anyone’s life — although, it might get you to look at your siblings in a whole different light — but it’s a worthy addition to the Pixar animation brand nevertheless, offering enough escapist thrills and laughs, tons of visual gags and splendor, and just the right sprinkle of emotional heft. It probably won’t garner enormous box office or critical acclaim, but what it will do is thoroughly entertain and enchant audiences young and old for its entire 102-minute duration — and sometimes, that’s magic enough.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by S-Littner