As a big animation fan, it’s weird to say that Pixar has been extremely hit or miss over the past decade. Onward didn’t really look to break that depressing slump either. Brave and Incredibles 2 have their moments, Inside Out is decent at best (fight me!), and the Cars franchise is worth avoiding as a whole. The Good Dinosaur, Finding Dory, and Coco are all either disappointing or complete letdowns. Even Toy Story 4 has to prove itself as you’re watching it because Toy Story 3 is a perfect ending for those beloved toys.
It just seems like as Pixar films go on, they have less and less of the creativity, imagination, and magic that made you fall in love with the animation studio in the first place. It makes sense since successful films deserve sequels, which fall victim to formulaic storytelling despite the best efforts of anyone involved. Onward starts off in a similar manner with an extremely basic premise that just about everyone has thought of at some point; what if in a reality where magic and mythical creatures exist everyone has traded spell casting and dragon slaying for the technological advancements that are taking over modern society?
Directed by Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) and written by Scanlon, Keith Bunin (Horns), and Jason Headley, Onward is the story of an elf family known as the Lightfoots. It’s Ian Lightfoot’s (voiced by Tom Holland) 16th birthday. Ian is shy, has no friends, and has low self-esteem. His older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), is the exact opposite. Barley is loud, outgoing, and caters his life around a role-playing game called Quests of Yore while craving the adventurous quests the game thrusts its players into. Ian and Barley were raised by their mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), whose boyfriend Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez) is a local police office and a centaur.
Ian and Barley’s father died of an illness right after Ian was born, so Ian never got to meet him. But the brothers stumble onto a way to spend one final day with their father; a visitation spell that lasts a mere 24-hours. The Lightfoot brothers set off to find a rare gem needed to complete the spell while traveling across the world that now has a very different perspective of magic than what they were expecting.
If you’ve ever experienced the loss of your father from sickness or through divorce, then you’re probably going to relate to the message Onward presents in some capacity. Ian’s desire to catch up with his father represents what we’d all like to say to the parent that left so suddenly. Ian is too young to remember his father, but Barley actually has memories of him all the way up to his last moments. The contrast between the two is an intriguing dynamic since there’s excitement on both ends, but for different reasons. Ian craves something that was never really there for him while Barley misses his father, but it’s the real-life adventure that he gets to spend with his favorite person in the world that is really fueling his passion.
You can also see a lot of yourself in Ian if you’ve ever had trouble fitting in or if you felt alone in your late teens. Nothing really seems to go right for Ian in the first half of the film. He can’t invite classmates to a simple birthday party without feeling like he screwed it up and he can’t even make breakfast without his family ruining it at every turn. Touching base with his father is his one shot at feeling normal when everything else is falling apart.
The three elements of resurrecting Wilden Lightfoot, Ian and Barley’s father, include the visitation spell, a magic staff, and a phoenix gem. The gem breaks at the beginning of the film thanks to Barley’s interruption and that’s what sets them off on their journey, but the incomplete spell only summons their father from the waist down. They give him a top portion made out of spare winter clothes and Onward essentially becomes a PG-version of Weekend at Bernie’s because of it. It’s an element of the film that works for the most part, but is awkward if you remember the PG-13 comedy from over 30 years ago.
It’s also funny how similar Barley is to Greg Universe, Steven’s dad on Steven Universe; right down to the hunk of junk van that they basically live out of. The dragon that is conjured near the end of the film that Ian has to battle is conjured out of some pretty inventive materials. The downside of Onward is that it doesn’t really feel like it’s as creative as it could be. The adventure and quest portion of it is fairly fun, but the outcome is rather stale and predictable. The film is this rinse and repeat formula of everyone forgetting what their reputation used to be when they relied on magic and then eventually attempting to reintegrate what they used to be with what they are now.
As with most Pixar films, what makes Onward worthwhile is the relationship between Ian and Barley and how it factors into who they are now. Corey (Octavia Spencer), the manticore restaurant owner has the most screen time of the supporting characters, but the most interesting one is a female cyclops police officer named Specter (Lena Waithe, Aech from Ready Player One) that mentions something about her girlfriend in a brief sequence. Does that mean Onward is the first Disney/Pixar film to feature a homosexual character? It’s pretty cool, if that’s the case; no matter how subtle it may be.
Onward isn’t a bad animated film since it’s fairly cute and charming and entertaining for all ages, but it’s lacking that emotional wallop that Up provided in its dialogue-absent and heartbreaking opening or what WALL-E accomplished simply by saying, “WALL-E,” and, “EVE.” It’s as if Onward has enough gas to get on the freeway and merge with the traffic that already includes Pixar’s previous films, but simply doesn’t have enough horsepower to keep up with everyone else. It’s just in this instance; a lack of emotional impact and a predictable concept represent that lethargic horsepower.
- Character arc of Ian and Barley.
- Officer Specter.
- The dragon
- Feels lazy for a Pixar film.
- Is destined to be forgotten about.
- Overwhelming predictability.