After years of sequels to their established and beloved movie properties, Pixar is going back to original fare for the first time since 2015’s Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur. Onward marks the studio’s first of two original efforts for 2020, presenting a story of grief and letting go, set amid a backdrop of a fantasy world, albeit one that’s seen a similar vein of progress as the real world. This means that unicorns have become scavenger-like pests, cars and airplanes are now the main methods of transportation, elves, orcs and centaurs sub in for humanity, and magic has become a thing of the past, only spoken of in historical documents. It’s a cute idea, one that’s ripe for creative and humourous potential.
Some of that potential is indeed realized pretty well too, crafting a heartwarming and fun adventure that’s true to Pixar’s reliable formula of stirring one’s emotions, while developing frequently bittersweet lead character arcs. Despite that however, and despite how entertaining and colourful Onward is, it doesn’t feel like it carries quite the same narrative depth as many of Pixar’s other classic works. It’s not as stark or interpretive in its underlying themes as movies like Up or WALL-E, not to mention the various Toy Story movies, plus its sense of adventure isn’t quite as potent as, say, the two Incredibles movies. If you can accept that Onward is sometimes disappointingly limited in scope however, it’s nonetheless significantly better than Pixar’s lesser offerings of the early 2010’s, ensuring that Pixar’s 2020’s are so far starting off on a much better note.
Onward stars two elven brothers, Ian and Barley Lightfoot, voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, respectively. Ian and Barley ended up losing their father to an unnamed sickness at a very young age, and since then, they’ve been looked after by their dedicated, kindly mother, Laurel, voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Despite formerly being close siblings as well, Ian and Barley have become very different people in adolescence, with Ian welcoming his sixteenth birthday as an intelligent, but shy younger sibling that’s eager to impress, while Barley is a devil-may-care, fantasy-obsessed eighteen-year-old, who’s entering adulthood with all of the conviction of a persistently irresponsible child. This odd duo of siblings proves to be an inspired pair once they discover that they can temporarily resurrect their late father, Wilden Lightfoot for a day as well, only to botch the first effort. Thus, an adventure to fully bring back Wilden begins, with Barley’s vast knowledge of old-world magic, and Ian’s surprising talent for wielding said magic, coming together to correct the botched resurrection spell.
In order to fully bring back their father, Ian and Barley must set off with Wilden’s sightless and speechless lower half (which can possibly hear them? But needs to touch their feet to identify them? The rules with the late Wilden Lightfoot’s bottom half aren’t clearly explained), traveling on a series of errands, or, as Barley calls them, quests, to try and find a Phoenix Gem, an item required to complete the resurrection spell, the path to which is scattered across several destinations. All the while, Ian and Barley go through the expected character evolution, namely butting heads, disagreeing on directions, and employing different methods to get ahead, but eventually coming together and learning to help each other out in a pinch, despite formerly not seeing eye-to-eye. It’s a solid odd couple pairing that’s further bolstered by an entertaining scavenger hunt.
It is nonetheless a shame however that many of the characters outside of Ian and Barley don’t feel all that developed. Laurel’s new boyfriend, Officer Colt Bronco, for example, a centaur cop voiced by Mel Rodriguez, serves as little more than a punch line, with most of the explanation behind his and Laurel’s relationship not properly being fleshed out. Likewise, Julia Louis-Dreyfus at least gets to headline her own subplot while chasing after her sons, alongside a begrudging ally named Corey, voiced by Octavia Spencer, though again, this is entirely done in service of jokes, jokes that can sometimes be achieved with mixed success. The ability to develop some truly unexpected and off-the-wall personalities in Onward is too often left frustratingly unrealized, with Tom Holland’s and Chris Pratt’s chemistry instead doing most of the heavy lifting when it comes to both drama and laughs.
Still, Onward’s over-arching mission to have Ian and Barley overcome their lasting grief over their dead father, as they separately enter adulthood, is one that the movie manages to deliver on in spades, sometimes at the expense of the actual spectacle and adventure. Pratt and Louis-Dreyfus easily get the most laughs, with Rodriguez also bringing up the rear, being let down only by the fact that Colt’s character isn’t as fleshed-out as he could have been. Holland, meanwhile, keeps the movie grounded, yet lovable through Ian’s well-meaning charm and earnest demeanour, despite the fact that it’s Ian who actually has the ability to wield magic between the two Lightfoot brothers. Fundamentally, the character infrastructure behind Onward is sound, but its decision to not incorporate actual villains works both for and against it at times, leaving Ian’s and Barley’s journey to be built more around the brothers facing their own shortcomings over actual, tangible dangers, at least when they’re not being accosted by some adorable and funny biker sprites anyway.
Onward does its best to provide surprises throughout its central journey, even though audiences will no doubt know how this movie will end before it even begins. Onward sometimes has a problem with tipping its hand when it comes to its narrative curveballs, and that can be made worse by the fact that some of the potential, fantastical strangeness that could have been presented on Ian’s and Barley’s journey sadly feels somewhat unrealized. Still, that’s not to say that Onward is necessarily predictable by nature. Even if viewers will know from the get-go how this journey will ultimately end, the only way it could reasonably end, the actual adventure still has plenty of moments of genuine imagination, peppered just widely enough to make the over-arching journey feel worth it, even if it doesn’t go above and beyond as much as it could have.
Still, that simple wholesomeness can just as easily work to Onward’s benefit, if you keep your expectations in check. Even as Onward fails to dive as deep into its narrative stakes as many of Pixar’s other original properties did when they first debuted, it’s still presenting accessible and relatable ideas that even children can easily understand, while adults will still find them relevant and emotionally resonant. Onward won’t stick with you at the rate that Pixar’s all-time best offerings likely would, but its storyline will still make you laugh, smile and even cry in the moment. The plotting can be a little scattershot at times, especially when so much of Onward is wanting in terms of its otherwise imaginative world-building, but the sense of character and heart that is present in the storytelling certainly never disappoints, even when this story’s actual adventuring doesn’t go quite as far as it deserved to.
Onward is directed by Dan Scanlon, an up-and-coming Pixar director, who is best known for helming 2013’s Monsters University. Onward is at least a slight improvement over the good, but not great Monsters University, but Scanlon still feels like he’s not always reaching the same emotional heights as some of Pixar’s other established helmers through his direction. Regardless, now that Scanlon can actually develop an original Pixar property, rather than having to work with a previously established one like Monsters Inc., he seems to fare much better as both a writer and a director. This is due largely to Scanlon also losing his father at a young age, only having a pre-recorded message to remember him by, which is a story device that’s incorporated into Onward, a movie that’s efficiently fueled by Scanlon’s own emotional childhood trauma.
Onward is a movie that’s easily able to bring a tear to your eye as well, never really pulling punches when it comes to its portrayal of death and loss, even in a story that’s built around the idea of temporarily resurrecting a dead relative. It’s this end of the direction that Scanlon most excels at, with the emotion-driven scenes usually landing with considerable success, even when some jokes tend to work better than others. Scanlon does nonetheless direct Onward with a strong sense of energy and momentum however, even if he doesn’t always strike a consistent balance between humour and pensiveness. The high-energy animation and performances ensure that when Onward is funny though, it’s very funny.
That energy also translates fairly well to the action, even if Onward still feels like it pales in comparison to a Pixar action spectacle like the Incredibles movies. The climactic sequence is arguably the highlight of the action in Onward (and it’s too shocking and cheeky to spoil, trust me!), with most of the other hazards in the movie feeling frustratingly fleeting, and not always finding a true sense of danger. Still, Scanlon’s direction in Onward is consistently giving it its all, if nothing else, and while it’s not airtight all the time, it tends to get the key plot-driven and emotion-driven scenes of the movie correct. Some potential may be left on the table, especially in regards to Onward’s world-building, but its heart always beats strong, and that makes it difficult to dislike.
The Danna Brothers, Jeff and Mychael Danna, compose the soundtrack for Onward, fresh off of providing the musical selection for last year’s animated reboot of The Addams Family, and after having formerly composed the soundtrack for Pixar’s uneven 2015 effort, The Good Dinosaur. As with Scanlon’s direction, the Dannas’ score is certainly energetic, if nothing else, combining a cheeky fantasy flavouring with a few quieter, more emotionally stirring compositions. It’s exactly what you’d expect from a score in this kind of movie, and it works pretty well, even if it doesn’t often go above and beyond, once again falling shy of the outstanding soundtracks behind Pixar classics like The Incredibles and Up.
The rest of the audio design in Onward is similarly giving it its all though, particularly during the handful of action scenes, which definitely crank up the sound mixing pretty noticeably. Onward’s handful of less effective scenes are sometimes given a boost by the audio, which sometimes substitutes blind panic and mayhem for genuine wit behind its set pieces, but the magic and fantasy elements are nonetheless realized with appropriate enthusiasm and whimsy. There’s definitely a strong feeling of adventure throughout Onward’s audio suite, even if its over-arching quest could have delivered some even more showstopping audio work, had it better embraced a more exotic and truly daring sense of exploration.
Unsurprisingly, Onward is beautifully animated, once again creating amazing new opportunities for Pixar’s animators to hone their craft, and try to take on more creative and ambitious character designs and set pieces. Onward’s character design is especially superb as well, with the blue-skinned Barley and Ian instantly standing out amid the colourful, but still recognizably mundane fantasy-ish setting. In fact, Onward’s use of colour in general is pretty exceptional, injecting lots of life into a world that’s intentionally designed to be grounded in tone, despite the fantasy flavouring that creeps in throughout its personalities and locations. It’s an odd, but commendably bold visual cocktail, one that doesn’t always fully allow Onward’s imagination to truly soar, but does nonetheless help it easily stand apart from other animated movies.
My screening of Onward was in a standard 2D theatre as well, and as such, I can’t comment on the movie’s 3D presentation, nor its IMAX potential. I would estimate that the IMAX cut is probably not all that necessary, considering that Onward is smaller in scope than it initially appears, and doesn’t feel like it truly requires a premium theatre experience to fully enjoy. As for the potential of 3D, the lively animation in Onward could theoretically make decent use of it, but Pixar has never really been that enthusiastic about incorporating 3D presentations into their movies, so I’d be surprised if the 3D cut of Onward ends up being all that worth it. If you want to save money, Onward thrives plenty well in a standard 2D theatrical showing, so sticking with that will still allow you to easily enjoy the animation and style. I, personally never felt like I was missing something by being stuck with a plain old theatrical viewing.
Onward proves that Pixar plans to enter this new decade with unyielding creative conviction, trusting original properties and original ideas, after likely receiving plenty of funding from the box office returns of these past few years’ sequels. That being said, after the studio soared to some real high points with Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4, Onward doesn’t quite achieve that level of quality, being a very good adventure-comedy that falls shy of true greatness.
Regardless, the movie’s imagination and inspiration is superb, even if Onward feels like it’s barely scratching the surface of such an intriguing and distinct animated world. Thanks to its lovable lead performances and heartstring-tugging journey however, Onward still stands a clear cut above your run-of-the-mill animated movie, providing a solid count of laughs and emotional swells, while also delivering a painfully honest portrayal of grief and moving on. It’s not always all it could have been, but Onward is nonetheless worthy of bearing the Pixar name, teasing an exciting new direction for the studio in the 2020’s, one that’s not afraid to go all in on bold, original ideas, and push the animated movie medium forward on its own terms.
- Lovable lead performances, particularly from Pratt and Holland
- Lively, colourful animation and direction
- Emotionally resonant themes of coping with family loss
- World-building is underwhelming
- Humour can be uneven