After several successful live-action remakes, Disney took a break to introduce us to Onward, a new animated film from Pixar, the second from the company since 2017’s Academy Award-winning hit Coco.
For the most part, Onward follows some of the same beats as most Pixar films – the number one is that it’s a buddy film. If you go through the list of Pixar films, you’ll definitely notice a trend, which is that the protagonists are usually two friends out on an adventure. The same goes for the main characters of this film, Ian and Barley, who are two elf brothers out on an adventure – excuse me – quest to spend one last moment with their deceased father through the use of a magic staff.
Pixar, of course, puts a twist on the modern world in this film given that it’s set in a fictional, mystical world where elves, fairies, unicorns, centaurs, pet dragons and magic all exist. They did this kind of world-building with Toy Story, Cars and Monsters Inc. And it worked in those films where as, at times, it felt forced in this film. In those films, their worlds felt justified and a means to the end, where in Onward it kind of feels like it’s just expected to be there. The balance of modern and mythical feels as if they’re stepping on each other’s toes at times.
For instance, magic was once held in high regard in a time before, where people would literally rely on it for the everyday things in life, such as cooking food, lighting their houses and, of course, entertainment. Then came technology and magic became more or less nonexistent. I liked this idea for the story but it sometimes seemed like an utterly forgotten thought, as if it wasn’t centrical to story, when it probably should have been. The technological versus the magical and mythical only seemed to reappear for a punchline.
Much like Coco, and, most Pixar films, Onward has a very serious emotional investment. Where a lot of humorous and even heartwarming moments take place is that only the bottom half of their father has been recovered and their quest is to find one of the last few stones to recover his other half before the sun sets the next day and they lose him forever. You can probably imagine where this goes but I won’t spoil anything. Ian and Barley are really fun characters who you’ll definitely end up pulling for – and they are certainly put in a lot of precarious situations where only something like magic can help them.
And it’s the voices of Ian, voiced by Tom Holland, and Barley, voiced by Chris Pratt, that are a big reason why this film works for what it’s doing. We all know Pratt is a lovable character through and through, no matter what he’s in, and we genuinely like him. He’s just as lovable in Onward, even if it is just his voice. Holland plays the part of the disgruntled, shy and fearful just-turned 16-year-old well. For the most part, that’s how he’s been as Spider-Man, though not so much fearful. His baby-faced features protrude through the character of Ian with a voice of youthfulness.
I’ll admit, while watching this film, there were some huge call-backs and references to other films like the Lord of the Rings series and there’s definitely a lot Dungeons & Dragons fodder but the main one I noticed was the 1989 comedy Weekend at Bernie’s. If you haven’t seen it, Weekend at Bernie’s is about two rather klutz employees who find out their boss is dead while visiting his beach house and they have to pretend he’s still alive while finding his murderer. As you can imagine, this put the characters in some majorly awkward and hilarious situations. That’s something I feel like Disney didn’t fully capitalize here. They definitely use Ian and Barley’s dad, and his lower half, in some interesting scenarios – which are funny – but I didn’t feel like they got as much as they should have out of it. Onward‘s major concentration is on the brotherly love of Ian and Barley.
In a time where everyone is tepid to even leave their house, this is a nice little film to finally get out of the house for and go out with the family to the theater and jump into another world for two hours and forget the outside world exists. It’s heartwarming, fun, funny and a bit of a tear-jerker. Is it Pixar’s best effort? No. But just because it’s not a home run doesn’t mean it struck out. This is a solid double if not triple. It’s not Coco, and it’s definitely not Toy Story, but it’s somewhere in the middle of the pack of the Pixar bunch, maybe just a smidge higher. Everything, for the most part, it does works – and works well. I just believe it feels like it’s been done before.
There’s not a lot of new here but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I guess. And if I know Disney, if this film does well enough, we’ll be getting a sequel – which I’d be totally fine with and gladly go see it opening weekend. The world in Onward is too likable, as are the characters – and there’s plenty of story that can be told from it.