In a fantasy land well into its post-heroic age, magic is a thing of the past, having been abandoned in favour of the more reliable forces of science. Ian Lightfoot (Holland) is an elf high schooler who misses the presence of his late father in a family dynamic with his caring but overwhelmed mother, Laurel (Louis-Dreyfus), over-exuberant fantacist brother, Barley (Pratt), and Laurel’s new boyfriend Colt (Mel Rodriguez), a stuffy centaur police officer. On his sixteenth birthday, he and Barley receive a bequest from their father: A wizard’s staff and a spell to allow them to summon their father back to life for one day.
After the spell goes wrong, leaving them with half a dad, the mismatched brothers embark on a quest to retrieve a magical gem, using a map procured from retired adventurer the Manticore – aka Corey (Spencer) – and so complete the spell in time to actually speak to the top half of their father. Ian struggles with his brother’s uninfectious hype and bumblingly quixotic approach to time-critical assignments, but as their prize threatens to slip though their fingers, Ian may have to reassess what he has, and what he is actually missing.
What’s wrong with it?
There’s a side-theme of embracing your weird (or possibly your wyrd, I guess) instead of fighting it, but it’s slightly skewed by its intersection with the main theme of accepting people for who they are and appreciating what you have, which kind of ends up with Ian finding his groove by accepting his brother’s weird, rather than his own.
Occasionally pitched as ‘Frozen, for boys,’ Onward is not without strong women – Laurel and Corey are both pretty awesome in their own ways, but with their main concern throughout being the fate of the boys, the movie fails the Bechdel test without either being preoccupied with romance.
Barley’s apparent ability to cause almost anyone to regress to the heroic era model of their race is… more than a little problematic. Real people aren’t a one-page PHB description.
What’s right with it?
As might be expected from Pixar, Onward is gorgeous.
I really like the idea of a post-heroic fantasy world. I’m not sure this is the best it could be done – it’s essentially set dressing on a story about family and individuality and conventional role models and feelings – but it’s a neat conceit, and way better done than Bright.
Ian is a likeable and painfully relatable character; not the archetypal nerd, just a boy who lacks confidence, trying to fit in somewhere and reacting against the only authority figure he has.
The throughline of the movie is beautiful, following from Ian’s lifelong sense of abandonment to his realisation that someone was always there to do the dad stuff with him. As has happened before with Pixar movies, I am not entirely comfortable with the sidelining of maternal influence, but I’m willing to allow this one more of a pass than the otherwise excellent Up! since in this case the mother is at least a character, with both a role in the story and her own stuff going on.
How bad is it really?
I don’t think I am core audience for the movie, having never suffered a loss like the Lightfoot brothers, but I’m a sucker for the triumph of the underdog, and Holland is an effortlessly likeable performer, even if I am a little over Chris Pratt’s loveable dork persona. It’s not top-rank Pixar, but Onward is… fine. It’s fine.
Best bit (if such there is)?
I’m so much here for Lauren and Corey’s road trip. If they don’t get a Thelma and Louise-esque short on the BluRay release, I’m going to be disappointed.
What’s up with…?
- The elfocentric nature of the world? It’s like there are centaurs and pixies and manticores, but everything is scaled and shaped for elves (or, less charitably, humans.)
- The lax health and safety standards which allow for the demolition of mystically significant monuments without a proper mystical decontamination?
- The lax health and safety standards which allow a manticore who terrorised her customers and burned down her restaurant to reopen after a brief refurbishement?
Production values – Pixar remains on the bleeding edge of animation, once more showcasing their phenomenal water effects, this time with a ride along a subterranean river. 1
Dialogue and performances – Holland needs to be wary of playing to type, or he’ll end up as straightjacketed as Pratt, but in this they make an engaging double act. The script is pleasant, but lacks any real stand outs. 6
Plot and execution – The plot revolves around the journey of self-discovery undertaken by the brothers, which has a strong throughline and a moving payoff. 3
Randomness – Although not the worst delivery of the concept, a lot of Onward‘s worldbuilding follows the logic of ‘human world, but with magical beings,’ rather than creating something truly unique. This results in things like the massive and uncommented on inherent racism of a system clearly built by and for elves, as well as the exoticisation of minority beings. I doubt this was intentional, and as such it comes out as random distraction. 9
Waste of potential – I expect a lot from Pixar, and Onward commits the forgivable sin of being entirely adequate, but not outstanding. I was not unhappy with it, but probably would have gone more for a work of flawed genius. 9