Ever since the release of Toy Story in 1995, Pixar has been a reliable source of computer animated features that never pander to their intended family audiences. Some are better than others, but rarely do I come away from one of their movies feeling like I have not gotten my money’s worth. Their latest, the fantasy/comedy/adventure Onward, definitely lives up to the expectations they have built up. After one viewing, I think I would put it in the top half of their catalog; high praise, indeed. It is creative, funny, exciting, touching and beautifully animated. While there are certainly other studios making quality animation, nobody (except for possibly Laika) seem to do it with anywhere near the consistency, or variety, of Pixar. Onward is absolutely worth the journey.
The story is set in a world that used to be full of magic, before everyone decided it was easier to use technology. Teenage Ian and his older brother Barley are elves who live with their caring mother. On Ian’s sixteenth birthday, he is given a present their late father wanted passed down to him: a magic staff with a spell that will bring their father back for one day. After the spell goes wrong, Ian and Barley go on an epic quest to fix it before time runs out and they lose out on their last chance to see their father.
As with all their best productions, the emotional center is the strongest part of Onward (93 minutes without the end credits). It establishes this world very efficiently, then brings in the characters with their issues, before starting the plot. The world is amusing, filled with mythical creatures acting in ways we would not expect. The filmmakers get easy laughs from sights such as unicorns who behave like feral dogs, a centaur driving a car or a once fearsome manticore running a family restaurant. They play into the idea of people losing their true selves as technology evolves. Then, they introduce the Lightfoots into this setup: Ian, who feels a hole in his life from never having met his father; Barley, hopelessly obsessed with what life used to be like; Laurel, their mother, knowing her boys need her, but unsure of how to help them turn their lives around. This is fairly simple stuff, yet Pixar has gotten good at not letting plots get in the way of deep emotions.
For me, this was aided immensely by the fact that I found the brothers’ internal journey so entertaining. The filmmakers pack it with gags, some in the background, some in the dialogue. The suspense does not totally land, but the action sequences are generally more about how the brothers must work together than whether they can survive whatever. It does this with bright animation and a well-thought-out visual design that is halfway between fairy tale and real life. It is good-looking and lively as they continue to find the sweet spot for being equally appealing to all ages.
They also have another talented voice cast. Tom Holland is Ian; smart, anxious, scared of adulthood. It is not a far cry from Spider-Man. He is quite likable. Fellow Marvel star Chris Pratt is Barley. His confidence can be annoying, but his bare earnestness makes up for it. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is their loving mother, who gets her own arc. Her line readings are sweet and funny. Octavia Spencer is The Manticore, who the brothers go to for guidance on their quest. She does not get as much to do as I had hoped. Still, she is able to make her silly character work. It is a good collection of performers that assist in bringing this world to life.
The premise of Onward makes it sound like a routine family movie. However, Pixar, as usual, spins it into something different. It is entertaining, very moving and sets the bar pretty high for family movies for the rest of 2020.
4¼ out of 5
Tom Holland as Ian Lightfoot
Chris Pratt as Barley Lightfoot
Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Laurel Lightfoot
Octavia Spencer as The Manticore
Mel Rodriguez as Colt Bronco
Directed by Dan Scanlon
Screenplay by Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley and Keith Bunin