The world used to be filled with magic and magical creatures, like unicorns, faeries, sprites, dragons and more. Learning magic was difficult, so technology like electric lights, telephones and appliances began to replace spells. Now the world looks very much like our own, but there’s still magic if you know where to look. Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland) and his older brother Barley (voiced by Chris Pratt) are elves living with their mother Laurel (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) live in a comfortable house in the community of New Mushroomton. Ian and Barley’s father Wilden (voiced by Kyle Bornheimer) got sick and died while Laurel was expecting Ian, so he never met him. Having just turned 16, Ian is smart but shy. He’s scared of many things including learning to drive and talking to other students at his high school. Laurel brings a wrapped package down from the attic and presents it to both Ian and Barley, saying it’s a gift from their dad. Opening it, the boys find a wizard’s staff, magical phoenix gem and a letter from Wilden. The letter contains a spell that will allow Wilden to be brought back to life for one day. Barley tries dozens of times to cast the spell, but nothing happens. The boys give up, but Ian begins saying the spell out loud and the staff begins to glow. He grabs it and finishes the spell and a beam of energy shoots out from the phoenix gem. Barley walks in to see what the commotion is and finds the staff and stone is rebuilding his father from the shoes up. The exertion of casting the spell is pushing Ian backwards across the room. Barley tries to help and grabs the staff, but the gem explodes, ending the spell prematurely. The boys discover their father is only half recreated with his body ending at the waist. He can walk around and is able to communicate with taps but cannot talk, see and hear. The boys attach a retractable leash to Wilden to keep him with them. Barley decides they must go on a quest to find another phoenix stone, but they will face challenges, both personal and magical, that tests their relationship.
“Onward” is a very typical Disney/Pixar animated film. Perhaps too typical. While there are the usual beautiful visuals and relatable humor, “Onward” isn’t anything special. It’s well done and has great voice work but offers no surprises. It is in no way bad, but it isn’t great as we expect from the geniuses at Pixar. It’s fine.
Watching “Onward” I kept waiting for “The Moment.” It’s the scene, the character, the joke that would put the film over the top. To put the movie on the level of “Toy Story,” “The Incredibles,” and “Inside Out.” That scene doesn’t exist. “Onward” does beat on your tear ducts with overt sentimentality, squeezing out drops with scenes of emotional discovery and pure manipulation. I’m not saying those tears aren’t earned, but they feel cheap this time.
“Onward” is playing it safe. I would guess there’s a book in their headquarters that sets forth how a Pixar movie’s story is to be designed. There must be a sweet protagonist that doubts themselves at the beginning of the film, a quest or problem that presents itself to challenge the protagonists status quo, a buddy or sidekick that, wanted or not, accompanies the protagonist on this journey into a world that is also outside the hero’s comfort zone, a disagreement between the two that causes the dissolution of or strain on the relationship, an event that brings to two back together, leading to the eventual end of the adventure, either successful or unsuccessful, that causes the protagonist to realize he was looking for resolution in the wrong place and learning a valuable lesson about life. Almost every Pixar movie follows a story structure similar to this. There are of course variations to this formula and those variations are what makes Pixar movies much better than most other kid’s films. However, “Onward” follows this design so closely, it never transcends its genre. It hits all the expected beats with the precision of an atomic clock, but it never tries to syncopate the rhythm and find joy in the unexpected.
“Onward” does something I’m learning to hate in movies: Bringing a dead parent back to life. This emotional trick is usually done via dream sequences, visitation while a character is suffering a medical crisis, or other unlikely way for a grown child to visit a deceased mom or dad. As I get older, I find this to be a cheap and manipulative storytelling device. I lost my dad in 2000 and my mom less than a year later. It was devastating to go from having both parents alive to both gone in less than 11 months. While I have fond memories of my folks, and my siblings and I share happy stories about them during those unfortunately rare times we are all together, I have never had a dream where I felt like I was visiting with them in the flesh. I haven’t bumped my head or had a disease that put me in a coma, and they came to help me realize it wasn’t my time yet. Their ghosts haven’t appeared to me in the middle of the night to warn me about some danger or just to say hi. When their bodies succumbed to the diseases that took their lives, that was it. They were gone and all I had were memories. There is no magic to bring them back, even for just a day. Using this device to tell children a story of learning to find your true self, in my opinion, borders on cruelty.
There is no fault to be found in the voice work of Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer or the rest of the voice cast. They clearly understand the passion and emotion they need to convey as they tell this story. There are some moments when you’ll wish these performances were in a better Pixar movie. I’d love to see Octavia Spencer’s Corey get her own spinoff film about the life of the Manticore before civilization tamed the wild beast. Perhaps the pixies that forgot how to fly and formed a biker gang could get a short. There’s plenty of material in “Onward” that could be built upon for other projects.
“Onward” is rated PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements. There are various chases, encounters with dangerous beasts and physical challenges throughout the film. There is also the concept of the loss of a parent. There is no foul language.
Despite my reservations about “Onward,” I liked the movie. It moves quickly, doesn’t waste much time setting up the situation, watching the bottom-half-dad walking around with a stuffed top half creates some laughs, Tom Holland and Chris Pratt give great vocal performances and there are some truly beautiful visuals throughout the film. Perhaps I’m spoiled by Pixar’s consistent excellence, but I expected more from this film. It follows a well-worn formula but doesn’t add anything to the mix. It’s a very good film, but not when compared to Pixar’s other efforts. It’s fine but I wanted it to be more.
“Onward” gets four stars out of five.
Three new films open this week. I’ll see and review at lease one of the following:
I Still Believe—
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