Onward is our first Pixar movie of the decade. It’s neither a sequel nor a prequel, but a brand new IP. The film tells the tale of Ian and Barley Lightfoot, two teenage elves on a quest to reunite with their dead father before the sun sets in 24 hours. I went in hoping that we were going to get the next Coco or Inside Out. Instead, what we got was closer to Brave — not bad by any means, but not the level of quality that we’ve come to expect from Pixar. In other words, it’s disappointing, but thankfully not terrible.
Let’s start with what’s good about the movie. The story is both original and interesting, with clever bits of lore and world building that hold onto your interest from the first frame hits to the moment the credits role. Unicorns that are this worlds versions of raccoons. Brilliant. Cars that are designed specifically for centaurs. Genius. Dragons as house hold pets. Perfect. There are plenty of small touches found within this world that help make it look and feel more lively — more sensible, in many ways. Heck, even Magic the Gathering plays a partial role in this, but instead of being some fantasy card game, it’s fantasy card game that is also partially historical. It’s even used to help introduce us to the great concept of magic. And speaking of which…
Magic does exist in this fantasy world that has gradually been modernized and, while the world is meant to be a reflection of our own, it does not mean that magic is used boringly. Pixar’s use of magic not only makes a boat-load of sense, but it also feels creative and an absolute blast to see on-screen. Seeing a dragon made from concrete is as cool as seeing a Cheeto being turned into a VERY BIG Cheeto. Every time magic is used, it’s just such a joy to watch.
Onward’s fantasy world is also quite a joy as well. Cars, houses, and restaurants are designed and executed in such a way that every little detail offers something that feels well thought out and given a considerable amount of time. It was unique in its own right, yet something to be expected, and I mean that in the best way possible. But while the world is certainly a joy to look at, I must also give the filmmakers credit for having the courage to bring the audience to reality. This film’s coloring is breathtaking, not on the level of Toy Story 4, but still quite the sight to see.
There are moments in the story that hit really close to home. Ian and Barley’s aforementioned father is dead by the time the movie starts, but the manner of his death is discussed a bit later into the film and it’s genuinely hard to hear. Listening to these characters describe how their father died is something that I feel many audience members will be able relate to. This fantasy world has many moments like this, where we’re ripped away from the fantasy and feel grounded for a moment.
The ending perfectly reflects this idea. It’s not a Toy Story 3 by any means (no movie’s ending can be a Toy Story 3) but it’s pretty ballsy in execution. Throughout the entire film, we’re led to believe that the movie is going to end one of two ways. But instead, Onward creates a third, unseen, option. It restrains itself by giving us an ending that feels right for the story, even if it’s one we did not want. It fits in a bittersweet manner, perfectly reflecting the themes that I found so beautiful and close to home.
While Onward is about two brothers trying to reconnect with their father, one can see it as a film about two brothers learning to reconnect with each other. That is where the heart of this movie truly lies: in the two characters, played pretty well by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt. These two bounce off each other so well and bring the emotions hard when it’s called for it. Yes, they are playing themselves, but it works. And everyone else does do a good job with their voice work.
These brilliant concepts should have made for an incredible movie, but unfortunately, there’s a lot that holds Onward back considerably. For starters, the comedy — it’s pretty hit or miss. If Sonic the Hedgehog‘s comedy was like flipping a coin then deciding whether or not it was going to be funny. Onward’s comedy is like taking two steps forward and then falling over backwards. For every good joke there’s another where it seems like the writers shot themselves in the foot and then continued writing. I dunno, comedy is subjective but this film wasn’t as funny as it could have been.
Another factor that dragged this film down was the pacing. It went by far too fast, not leaving us enough time to register moments that have just happened. One of those grounded moments I discussed happens so quickly that we aren’t given enough time to process it. We breeze by scenes the way Gweniveer breezes along the road. This is a quest movie that needed more time, because by the time the credits rolled, I felt like I was missing something. While I felt attached to the two main characters, not enough was done to establish them as characters. Because of this, Ian and Barley feel underdeveloped for most of it and side characters like the brother’s mom Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) Colt (Mel Rodriguez), and Corey (Octavia Spencer), felt underutilized. We cut back to them from time to time but there’s no sense of urgency or connection. I get what they’re supposed to represent, but it didn’t feel like my investment towards them was earned.
Ok, that’s sort of a lie. I have to give Laurel credit for acting like a legitimate mom and reacting to the situation like, “Oh, my children are in danger of getting cursed? Well, I’m not going to sit on my butt, I’m gonna grab a sword and find them.” That’s a plus, as I’m so used to movie parents doing absolutely nothing while their children go out to do battle, or get eaten, or something. So yeah, the mom gets some brownie points, but overall, connecting with any of these characters was strenuous. This movie feels like it was rushed and could have benefited with each scene being just a minute longer.
The third act also doesn’t fit with the tone of this movie. Yes, it is a fantasy with magic and questing, but that third act felt like it was part of How To Train Your Dragon. It’s too fantastical and should have been replaced with something that was more aimed towards the relationship between Ian and Barely. Make it personal rather than some external force.
Finally, my biggest problem with the movie is its presentation, which has similar issues to The Good Dinosaur. This world is beautiful and engaging in every way shape and form, with its photorealistic animation and interesting character models. So much thought and care was put into how this world looked that nobody at Pixar ever asked a simple question: does the cartoonish characters mix with the photo-realistic world that it is set in? No. No, it does not.
It took A LOT to look past this. I was eventually able to focus on the story once things got interesting, but every once in a while, I found myself getting taken out of the movie when I saw a fairy rip open a VERY REAL looking bag of chips. I’m not saying you have to give up the cartoonish look of your characters, nor do you have to give up the photorealism of your world. But what I am saying is find a way to make the two worlds meet in a way that isn’t clashing. That’s all I ask.
Verdict: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
Onward isn’t a bad film. It’s actually pretty good, and might get even better the more I rewatch it. But as of now, the rushed story, iffy comedy, bizarre third act, and contradicting animation hold it back too much. There are some pretty excellent morales and themes, so much so that I could see this as a timeout movie parents put on so their kids will learn to get along. I know I will see it again, because despite the movie’s problems, it IS original and new. And I know some kid is going to see this movie and one day be inspired to make something of their own. OR, at the very least, be inspired to spend some quality time with their sibling.