The following is a review of Onward — Directed by Dan Scanlon.
Onward is the 22nd Pixar Animation Studios film, as well as Dan Scanlon’s second Pixar film as a director after 2013’s Monsters, Inc.-sequel titled Monsters University. In recent years, Pixar has been focused on making sequels — such as Toy Story 4 or Finding Dory — to several popular original films, but 2020 was meant to be the first time in several years where the animation studios’ two films — Onward and the upcoming Soul — were both new original films.
Dan Scanlon’s Onward is a coming-of-age fantasy-adventure animated film that takes place in a magical world inhabited by mythical creatures, but, over the years, due to the simplicity of electricity, the world has forgotten about its magic roots and now these mythical creatures live in a world that functions almost like our own. Now some mystical creatures have abandoned their background and turned their fabled castles into theme restaurants, while others may have forgotten how to use their wings.
The film follows Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland), a teenage elf, who doesn’t have the confidence that his nerdier older brother Barley (voiced by Chris Pratt), who is obsessed with the history of magic and role-playing games, possesses. Ian and Barley live with their mother, Laurel (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and her boyfriend, Colt Bronco (voiced by Mel Rodriguez), a centaur police officer. Ian and Barley’s father passed away before Ian was born, and, as a result, the anxious Ian hangs onto every detail people tell him of his father, Wilden (voiced by Kyle Bornheimer).
On Ian’s sixteenth birthday, Laurel surprises her sons with a special gift from their father. Wilden instructed Laurel not to open the gift before his sons were both at least sixteen years old, and, so, they all find out that Wilden had found a magical staff, its power source — a ‘phoenix gem’ — and a so-called visitation spell, which will allow them to bring their father back to life for one whole day.
Ian and Barley are both ecstatic, but the spell doesn’t go as planned. While Ian was losing control of the magical staff, the phoenix gem broke apart. Because of this, only the bottom half of their father has been brought back to life, and, since Ian can’t get to know his father by simply interacting with his legs, Barley and Ian decide to go out on an adventure in an attempt to find a new phoenix gem that may complete the spell and grant the Lightfoots the opportunity to talk to Wilden. Unbeknownst to Barley and Ian, however, the gem that they venture out to find is cursed.
Dan Scanlon’s second Pixar feature film is a road-trip, coming-of-age Dungeons & Dragons-version of Zootopia that will remind you of Weekend at Bernie’s, Indiana Jones, and a bunch of other popular films. But, when you consider its premise, Onward probably should’ve been called Before Sunset, but, alas, as cinephiles know that title is taken by one of the greatest romance dramas ever made. When Pixar is at its best, they can produce some of the greatest animated films ever made, but even though Onward, granted, isn’t among Pixar’s finest films, it is, however, a touching coming-of-age film that predictably moved me to tears.
It is a very relatable film about finding out what is magic about you, not needing a safety rope, and the desire for one more moment with someone you love — or, in Ian’s case, meeting someone influential who you never got to meet or know. But while, from the film’s marketing, you may believe that the film focuses entirely on Ian’s desire to meet his father, the film gradually reveals that it is also a beautiful and loving tribute to siblings and how they can have an impact on the person that you become as you grow up.
Ian Lightfoot learns a lot about himself, and completes several of his personal goals, on the trying road trip with his older brother, and that isn’t exactly an unexplored character arc. As a coming-of-age road-trip film it is, admittedly, formulaic and, at times, predictable. But, again, in spite of the predictability of parts of the plot, Dan Scanlon’s film, in true Pixar-fashion, hits all of the emotional story-beats just right. Whether it was the scene where Ian imagined he could have a conversation with his father by listening to an old tape of his voice over and over again or the moving way Barley was able to communicate to his father’s lower body that he was with his sons, Onward always found a way to produce powerful emotions.
It all builds up to a final act that refreshingly doesn’t overcomplicate or overextend the aforementioned curse, or the battle that commences because of the curse. In fact, while I was, admittedly, becoming slightly worried that the final fight would overwhelm the film’s most important moments, I was very happy to find out how Pixar had designed its final act. The final fight is fairly swift, which is appropriate when you consider the urgency of the film’s plot, and I have to say that I loved the creature design of the being that the Lightfoots had to contend with at the end of the film. Also, while I won’t reveal exactly what happens at the end of Ian and Barley’s journey, I thought Scanlon’s film found great success with what is essentially a little bit of a twist to its premise.
It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that Tom Holland is particularly great as a voice-actor in Onward, since he got his start with a prominent voice-role in Steven Knight’s Locke. In fact, his voice-acting performance in Locke is something that I think about quite a lot actually. Holland is a natural fit, and, although his character asks him to give a very different voice-acting performance, Chris Pratt is solid here. Pratt is over-the-top, but that is essentially what his bold character asks of him.
Scanlon’s Onward is a moving and relatable tribute to siblinghood, as well as the best new animated movie that I have seen thus far this year. Admittedly, Dan Scanlon’s Onward is not one of Pixar’s best films, but, then again, it is a big ask for one to expect every new release to be as good as the animation studios’ classics. On the whole, in spite of the formulaic nature of the plot, this Dan Scanlon film is head and shoulders above his previous Pixar-film, Monsters University.
8 out of 10
– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.