I don’t really know why exactly, but Onward was one that I had been putting off for a while, despite the plethora of ways I could have watched at home, whether it was Sky, Amazon, Google or whatever else. Maybe it’s just because I associate Pixar movies so completely with the cinema experience, that giving in and watching Onward on the small-screen would have felt like a final admission that COVID is now the primary influence on what new films I get to watch. Well, it seems like five-and-a-half months was all I could stand, and I can’t stand no more. You win COVID: I took in Onward off of my laptop screen instead of a cinema equivalent.
I certainly wasn’t holding out on Onward because I feared it would be a bad film. Indeed, if Onward was giving me some trepidation, it was more because it seemed impossible for the film to match up to its most recent studio protege, my 2018 Film Of The Year Coco, and the similarly incredible Toy Story 4 (not so much the less incredible Incredibles 2, which also came out in-between). Ever and anon, Pixar does find new ways to raise the bar though, and this project had a very interesting universe to try and place the traditionally emotive Pixar story-telling into. So, was Onward worth the wait, and worthy of a place alongside Miguel and Woody? Or has COVID conspired to make me wait for an underwhelming continuation of the Pixar canon?
In a fantasy world that has modernised and seen magic slowly disappear, 16-year-old Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) finds himself trying to face up to the memory of a deceased father he never knew, while living with his quest-obsessed older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) and put-upon mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss). Ian gets the opportunity to meet his father when he receives the gift of a magical staff that could resurrect him for a day, but the spell to do so goes awry, leaving him with only the bottom half of his father. He and Barley must embark on a journey to find the a magic gem that can complete the spell, tracked by their determined mother and a quest-giving Manticore (Octavia Spencer).
Onward is a film that really does have a huge amount of potential, in the world that it sets its story in. Comparisons to Netflix’ Bright are probably somewhat apropos, both of them attempting to take the standard fantasy tropes of elves, fairies and other such races/creatures, and planting them in something approaching the “modern” day. Where Bright decided to do this through the inner-city with a focus on race as a plot point, Onward instead goes the foibles and idiosyncrasies of suburbia. A brilliant opening narration/prologue sets the scene: jaw-dropping vistas where unicorns fly majestically through the air turn rapidly into feral, and seemingly flightless, unicorns eating out of trash cans. Lacking the grime and cynicism inherent in Bright, Onward is able to maintain the vibrancy of the standard fantasy setting, and get intrigue, comedy and engagement out of its efforts to find a place for that setting in a world where DND is more of a history lesson than a game.
There are some interesting messages to get out of that world to, providing Onward with a suitable subtext. With the invention of electricity, the world has turned its back on magic (in the same prologue, a wizard’s apprentice who struggled to get even the most basic spell going marvels at a light switch: “It’s so easy!”). The ignorance of natural talents in favour of a lazier dependence on what makes life easier creates a world of suburban sprawl and packed freeways, where the literal magic of creation is hidden away and dismissed. It’s not hard to see the environmental message, even a bit of Luddite thinking, but Onward does not beat you over the the head with it.
It is a bit of a shame then that the story director, Dan Scanlon, chooses to tell is so, to be perfectly blunt, disappointing. Pixar has done a lot better than this recently, with Onward’s story following predictable plot beats throughout its structure, and rarely rising to challenge the expectations of the audience, instead playing it safe whenever the opportunity to make a hard choice comes up. This does not make it a bad film in terms of plot, just an unexceptional one, and for a company like Pixar that seems akin to dubbing Onward Asylum-level. Onward is a film which is at pains to take very few risks with the narrative, which flies in the face of the often daring, sometimes eye-raising, but on most occasions challenging narratives of things like Inside Out, Coco or Toy Story 4. Instead, in line with Scanlon’s previous effort at the helm, Monsters University, it’s a rather bland affair that struggles to really excite your interest, something at the level of a lesser animation studio. It doesn’t tie in its characters enough to the universe that is presented, which is a real let-down: there’s no real reason for Ian and Barley to be elves.
So you have Ian, suitably played as an insecure teen by Tom Holland, just a hop, skip and jump away from Peter Parker. He’s trying to live up to the mostly self-invented expectations of the deceased father who died before he was born, but his efforts to turn himself into a confident, charming facsimile of what he thinks his father are hamstrung by his own true nature, and by his clashes with caring, but sometimes less-than-helpful older brother. As a basis its fine, but things take a slightly wacky turn when the resurrection spell is brought into the plot, landing the two brothers with their father’s lower half, and a ticking-clock to get the upper-half into play.
The hook is basically “What would you be willing to do to spend one more day with a deceased loved one?”, which is a not inconsiderable one (though a dead parent is so intrinsic to Disney animation it’s gone beyond a trope and come back out the other side). Perhaps the drama of this is undercut a bit by the fact that Ian is literally walking around with his father’s sentient legs on a leash, a strange yet oddly fascinating plot-point, but that isn’t as important to the story as you might think. It’s good for some physical comedy jokes, but it actually wears out its welcome pretty quickly. More engaging, and rather devastating emotionally, is Ian having a conversation with a recording of his father’s voice, the only thing he’s ever had of his father. But that moment of script mastery is a rare thing. Most of the rest of the time it’s a straight-forward heroes journey, with the stops along the way, be they physical or emotional, very telegraphed. Perhaps I am judging Onward harshly, but this isn’t just any animation studio, this is Pixar.
It will surprise you little to learn that Ian’s list of things that he wants to do with his father are all accomplished in the course of the resulting journey, but of course not with/at the direction of his father. Instead, we get what you would not likely expect: Ian learning to stand up for himself; Ian learning that he shouldn’t be so dependent on the approval of a dead relative; Ian learning that he has had a father figure in his life the whole time; Ian learning that there is a time for checklists and a time for jumping headfirst; Ian learning that his stepdad ain’t so bad after all. And so on and so on. It appears there is nothing, not even social awkwardness, that can’t be overcome by finding a magic gem. The film is based on Scanlon’s own experiences growing up without a father, so one cannot fault his connection to this kind of plot, but the recitation of it just leaves something to be desired, something beyond “I can’t so this – Yes, you can – Yes, I can!”. I’m not sure how to get across exactly what I mean, other than to say that when Onward tries to pull on your heartstrings, the effort seems more forced and obvious than it should be, in comparisons to something as devastating as, say, the finale of Coco.
The beats to get to all of those aforementioned realisations are still a lot of fun, including ye olde RPG quest-giving tavern that is now a family restaurant, an inventive chase scene featuring a gang of fairy bikers and some Indiana Jones-esque trials (the iconic DND gelatinous cube even makes an appearance). You can tell that at least some of this was stuff that they came up with independent of the plot and, while greatly entertaining (especially for an aging GM like myself), they do have the feeling of a highlight reel of ideas, not always in service of the overarching narrative. It feels so tired to say, but Onward is a film that could do with some kind of more obvious antagonist force to focus some of the plot around, largely lacking a villain beyond the abstract idea of low self-confidence. It could also have done with maybe an addition to the brother pair, which apparently did exist at some point in the production, in the form of an anonymous “goat girl” character, before being cut. Instead, there’s an effort to turn Barley’s van into a character of consequence, who you are supposed to care about when bad things happen to it, but which you just kind of don’t.
There should, perhaps, be more of a focus on the family over the slightly flashier story beats. Chris Pratt is the stand-out of the cast as man-child Barley, throwing himself into the role with the gusto of someone who appreciates what Pixar is. I might have some issues with the blandness of Onward’s story, but I do appreciate the efforts to slowly turn Barley from being the a-typical screw-up to a young man with some heavy emotional baggage weighing him down. Louis-Dreyfuss is less notable as the mom, sidelined into a not strictly necessary sub-plot with Spencer’s Manticore that exists, Minions-like, just for some yucks to break the slightly more serious plot up. Given that the MacGuffin they are trying to resurrect for a day is her dead husband, you would think they might try and work in her own desire to see him a bit more: as it is, she’s depicted as not really caring too much.
Of course this is Pixar, with the not-inconsiderable support of Disney, so Onward looks great, with smooth, polished animation and an obvious amount of care. I talked about how much I love the setting here, and that is the film’s most prominent saving the grace, the inventive ways that the animators have tried to transplant Middle-Earth into the ‘burbs, when creatures of all shapes and sizes are just trying to get on with their day, from the centaur cop to goblin pawn shop owner. The effort has clearly been made to make them all look fantastical, and yet also depressingly human, a suitable dichotomy given the setting and the ideas that it is trying to get across. Lots of sequences standout in the course of Onward: there’s the already mentioned prologue, pitch-perfect in what it was trying to get across, the freeway chase scene which is a physical-comedy masterclass, a hair-raising trek across an inconveniently-placed chasm and, perhaps best of all, a dragon-filled finale, with a moment comprising said dragon acquiring eyebrows being one of the funniest things Pixar has pulled in years. Indeed, the whole finale is a great take on the fire-breathing dragon trope, capping off Onward’s tertiary appeal as a love-letter to role-playing games rather nicely.
If I was asked to place Onward next to other Pixar efforts of similar quality, I’d probably have to go with the likes of The Good Dinosaur, Monsters University or The Incredibles 2, films that were made with care and had some interesting things to say, but which were a bit too mired in their faults to have the opportunity to soar. Onward is much the same. Its base is a really interesting setting, and a good thematic core is found in dealing with distant bereavement. It has a good cast, great animation and some stand-out individual sequences. But it’s far too predictable in every facet of its script and plot, from the main character’s stuttering efforts to transform himself at the beginning right down to the very neatly wrapped up conclusion. As such, Onward is an entertaining diversion that stands above most of its animated brethren in the genre, but below its siblings in Pixar, a company which engenders high expectations that Onward didn’t meet where it really mattered. I don’t think that I will ever not recommend a Pixar film provided it isn’t a blatant cash-in, but with Onward that recommendation comes with some reservations.
(All images are Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).