Director: Dan Scanlon
Starring: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Mel Rodriguez
After a recent emphasis on sequels, with Toy Story 4, Incredibles 2, Cars 3 and Finding Dory all coming out in the last four years, Pixar is returning to original storytelling with Onward. Co-written and directed by Dan Scanlon, who previously helmed Monsters University (another Pixar sequel), Onward fittingly offers escapism and adventure at a time when everyone is housebound and in dire need of distraction.
Transferring high fantasy to the present day, Onward transports us to a magical world which has lost its magic. A brief prologue describes how long ago this world had been full of wonder, adventure and, most important of all, magic. But magic was hard to master so as time passed the world turned its back on it in exchange for the convenience of science. Thus, we find the town of New Mushroomton, a sprawling suburbia much like our own, except that it is inhabited by elves, centaurs, cyclopses and pixies, and has somewhat of a feral unicorn problem. It is here that young elf Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) lives with his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) and mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). On his sixteenth birthday, Ian is presented with a special gift left for him and his brother by his father who passed away before his birth. It is a staff, a magical phoenix gem, and instructions for a visitation spell that will allow his father to return and spend one day with his boys. But something goes wrong and Ian only succeeds in bringing back the bottom half of his father before the gem expires. So Ian, Barley and their father’s legs must go on a quest, with 24 hours to find a new phoenix gem and complete the spell before dad vanishes for good.
There is something quite un-Pixarlike about Onward. Over its 25 year existence, Pixar has built a reputation not just for quality animation and storytelling, but for originality and inventiveness. Onward, on the other hand, feels very much like something we’ve seen before, or rather a number of things we’ve seen before. While still a lot of fun and well executed, Scanlon’s film feels like an exercise in creative combination rather than invention. All of the ingredients of this story are familiar even if this specific combination of these elements is new.
Just like the text that sits at the heart of the fantasy genre, The Lord of the Rings, Onward is a quest narrative. “In ancient times, you celebrated your day of birth with a solemn quest,” Barley tells Ian as he comes downstairs on his birthday morning, setting up the idea that this quest is to be a coming of age experience for the young elf. As brothers, they are hardly two peas in a pod. According to their mother Ian’s problem is he is afraid of everything and Barley’s is that he isn’t afraid of anything. Ian has defined his life by the absence of his father, attributing all his perceived shortcomings to not having his father there to guide him. Barley is seen by most, Ian included, as a screwup. Overly invested in the fantasy card game ‘Quests of Yore,’ Barley has long argued it is based not on fantasy but history, and this quest gives him a chance to put his knowledge to use. As the third adventurer, their father is more prop than character. The presence of dad’s legs does allow for some fun, Weekend at Bernie’s-like comedy beats, but without a torso and face he is limited in his emotional impact. While their father is the catalyst for the quest, and the motivation for Ian, it is Ian’s journey towards believing in himself, and valuing his brother that drive this film, and the relationship between the brothers that provides its emotional core.
The film’s central thesis, that the love and mentorship of an older brother can fill the void of an absent father, feels similar to Frozen’s validation of the love between sisters as being every bit as powerful as romantic love. That said, just when the story is starting to feel a bit rote, Scanlon, who is drawing on his own experience of growing up without a father, finds a way to stick the landing, giving us a resolution that is both surprising and sincere.
This premise of a magical world devoid of magic creates an interesting balance between the fantastic and the mundane, typified by watching Laurel’s new boyfriend, a police officer who also happens to be a centaur, squeeze himself into a regulation police car rather than just galloping. Ian and Barley’s epic quest is similarly undermined: their valiant steed is Barley’s much loved minivan, Guenevere, the old tavern on the outskirts of tow is now a themed family restaurant. However, despite this interesting juxtaposition Onward feels somewhat lazy in its approach to world creation. Where Disney’s Zootopia, which showed a modern metropolis entirely inhabited by animals, put so much creative thought into what a city designed for animals would look like, barring some nods to medieval design, New Mushroomton is just an ordinary, middle-class world inhabited by fantastical beings. There is no sense that this is a world designed by and for goblins, pixies and centaurs, and as a result, there is no real sense of why these characters can’t just be humans.
Owing to the way that the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted its theatrical run, Onward will have to live with the ignominy of being Pixar’s lowest ever grossing film. But that is not a reflection of its comparative standing within the studio’s body of work. Onward is mid-tier Pixar, and for a studio that sets the bar as high as Pixar does, that is nothing to be ashamed of. Onward is fun, at times exciting, and ultimately heartfelt. It just doesn’t grab hold of your imagination in the way that Pixar’s best films have tended to.
Review by Duncan McLean
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