The 2020 Disney Pixar film “Onward” is a heartwarming yet underwhelming tale of family and growing up. This film tells a new but familiar story of a tragic twist on a magic spell. While this movie is certainly not bad, by Pixar’s high standards the film proves, well, disappointing.
“Onward” was released on March 6, 2020. It is a modern fantasy movie directed by Dan Scanlon and written by Scanlon, Jason Headley, and Keith Bunin. The film features the voice talents of Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Octavia Spencer. Set in a suburban fantasy world, the film tells the tale of two elf brothers, Ian and Barley. Ian is a shy and introverted teen, while Barley is loud and obsessed with magic. The story is set in a world that has moved on past the need for magic in favor of relying on technology to live. When the brothers discover Ian can harvest magic, they try to bring back their late father for just one day. Naturally, the spell does not go as planned, and while trying to recreate their father they only get halfway through the spell. This results in their father appearing only from the waist down as just a pair of khakis and shoes with silly socks. The idea is strange and the imagery stranger.
The animation, like most recent Pixar movies, is visually stunning. The characters are cute, and it is silly to see the magical creatures act so human-like. Holland and Pratt play two brothers who have a likable chemistry with each other. (It also doesn’t hurt that the two are known for their equally likeable Marvel characters.) The movie takes well-known fairy tale tropes and mixes them with modern suburbia to create a fun and interesting combination. This mixture of old and new has some pretty clever and funny sight gags such as mermaids lounging in kitty pools, unicorns rummaging through trash like racoons, and characters living in over-sized mushroom houses. The movie also features an inspiring message: “There’s a mighty warrior inside of you, you just have to let them out.” While not an entirely original one, this message of self-confidence and believing in one’s own abilities is still important and plays out well for a children’s movie.
This movie is not awful, but compared to other Pixar movies it falls flat. The story, although cute and simple, is not exactly a novel idea. The plot of dealing with death while struggling with family relations is a commonly used one, especially in the Pixar universe. While this film has some heart, it feels as if the movie relies more on slapstick comedy and awkward character interactions to fill the screen time. As if Ian and Barley dragging their half-dad along by a retractable dog leash with make-shift torso and a baseball cap wasn’t enough, the movie felt it necessary to add another subplot. Their mother, a once-powerful manticore, but now a manager of a Chuck. E Cheese-type restaurant, try to follow Ian and Barley on their adventure and break free of their complacency. While the message of defying contemporary gender stereotypes and reclaiming one’s life is a good one, the side plot feels like it’s been wedged in from a different movie.
The overall pacing of the film is very jarring, but still has a sweet and tear-jerking ending. The characters are never fleshed out well enough for the audience to connect with them, but they are still charming and quirky. The film never really lives up to its full potential of being the next Pixar classic, but features just enough nostalgia, humor, and heart to scrape by. I think a perfect way to describe this movie would be marvelously mediocre.