Over the years, Pixar Animation Studios has developed a reputation for excellence, with 22 feature films in 34 years and many accolades, including 20 Academy Awards. Many of their films can be hailed as near masterpieces. Instant classics such as Ratatouille (2007), WALL-E (2008), Up (2009), Toy Story 3 (2010) and Coco (2017) are near and dear to many viewers’ hearts.
The secret to Pixar’s success is cutting-edge animation, fantastic voice acting, and complex storytelling that’s layered with humour, joy, and poignancy. Of course, not all of Pixar’s films hit the stratosphere. Films such as Monsters, Inc. (2001), Cars (2006), Brave (2012), The Good Dinosaur (2015) and others, while entertaining, have been far less enthralling than Pixar’s best work.
Unfortunately, although it’s entertaining, Onward falls in the second category. Fair or not, Pixar is regularly judged by the highest standards because it pushes the envelope regularly. Tellingly, Onward is directed by Dan Scanlon, who made the fun but safe Monsters University.
Although Onward is enjoyable, it lacks the magic of Pixar’s most memorable films
The premise of Onward is certainly interesting. This is a mythical world inhabited by fantasy creatures such as elves, centaurs, unicorns, pixies and more. Here, the beings lost their penchant for magic over thousands of years as they discovered technology.
When the film begins, we see an everyday neighbourhood with houses, roads, cars, and more, except that they are inhabited by fantasy beings. We’re introduced to two teenage elves from the city of New Mushroomton. Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) is an awkward kid lacking self-confidence who doesn’t know his own potential. Yes, like Tom Holland’s Marvel character, Peter Parker/Spider-Man. His older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), is super geeky and a bit of a goof, like a combination of Chris Pratt’s Marvel Character Peter Quill /Star-Lord and Parks and Recreations’ character Andy Dwyer. The pair was raised by their single mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) after their father Wilden (Kyle Bornheimer) died before Ian was born.
The secret to Pixar’s success is cutting-edge animation, fantastic voice acting, and complex storytelling that’s layered with humour, joy, and poignancy. Of course, not all of Pixar’s films hit the stratosphere.
On Ian’s 16th birthday, his mother hands him an enchanting gift. It’s a magical staff that can resurrect his father for one day. Excited, the two can’t wait to bring back their dad, if only for this short while. Unfortunately, the spellcasting goes wrong, and only their father’s lower half appears. What follows is an exciting and humorous adventure as the two try to resurrect Wilden before the day ends. Along the way, they meet the film’s best character, Corey (Octavia Spencer), a Manticore who owns an eatery called the Manticore’s Tavern. It promised to be the sort of tavern you’d find in role-playing videogames, where adventurers come to find quests but, instead, it’s a family restaurant that tries to maintain good reviews.
The animation in Onward is excellent. The fantastical visuals look gorgeous, thanks to Pixar’s top-of-the-line technology and talented art team. Likewise, the voice acting is superb. The main characters have excellent chemistry while Octavia Spencer steals scenes with her energy. The humour is a bit lowbrow, but it works. The self-aware Marvel jokes are particularly funny. Kids of all ages should enjoy Onward though I wouldn’t recommend it to children who’ve lost their fathers.
Although Onward is enjoyable, it lacks the magic that makes Pixar films so memorable. It doesn’t take the risks that could have elevated the narrative. The characterisation is good but lacks depth. This lessens the impact of the film’s payoff. Still, even a good Pixar film is worth watching. While Onward isn’t always spellbinding, it casts enough magic to be worthwhile.
PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements
Published in Dawn, ICON, March 15th, 2020