Onward (MOVIE REVIEW)
Runtime: 103 Minutes
Director: Dan Scanlon
Cast: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer
Regardless of how someone might look at the history of Pixar Animation Studios, whether it may be their technological evolutions in CGI or how they put you in the unique perspectives of animals or imaginative beings, the one thing that has been their true bread and butter is their knack for personal stories. Being his 2nd directorial effort, Dan Scanlon takes a hugely personal story about losing his father at an extremely young age and translates it into a brand new magical world for the Pixar team to explore in a beautiful film that is ultimately about the importance of family and the power of the sibling bond.
Long ago in a universe full of otherworldly spellbinding creatures, the world was full of magic. But due to how difficult it was to master alongside the advancements of technology, the world found easier ways to get by in life in favour of a domesticated lifestyle. In this setting, two elf brothers, Ian and Barley (Tom Holland and Chris Pratt), are given a magical staff by their mother following Ian’s 16th birthday which contains a gemstone which has the power to revive their long lost father for 24 hours who died before either of them were able to remember him. When the attempt to bring back their dad goes wrong and only results in them bringing back his legs, the brothers go on a quest to find another gemstone to bring back their father before the 24 hours are officially up.
It’s very easy to look at Onward’s plot from a distance and argue that a lot of it might seem silly. It isn’t exactly every day that you watch a film where most of it is literally seeing a pair of siblings carrying the legs of their dead dad across the land to restore the rest of his body. But underneath the surface of this is actually a very touching storyline with the core message of family at its centre. You can tell from the outset how this is a story very personal for Dan Scanlon and how he and his own brother had to deal with the fact that they never knew their father and how they compare to the characters, Ian and Barley. Tom Holland and Chris Pratt do amazing jobs portraying these highly contrasting brothers and how despite their differences, the two still find a lovable bond as they both share the same desire of seeing their father. But it’s also through the journey these characters go on together that it shines many aspects to these characters that seem very buried under the surface which adds an immense sense of relatability to them. Though it could be argued through this process that it turns Onward into a pretty formulaic road trip movie as these two go from location to location and learn new life lessons by learning to trust each other, it feels a bit disingenuous to call it bad, since it’s the kind of story that benefits these characters. It's also through this use of storytelling that underneath the surface is also a lovely tale about the importance of sibling love; how important these people are in our lives and how we don't necessarily realise how crucial they are to how we form as people. It's through that extra layer to Onward's plot that the film finds a unique way to bring this personal tale to life, whilst not leaving out anyone who may not have experienced a lot of familial loss. It's all about how our families bring us closer and why we should truly cherish them in the moment.
Also, similarly to other Pixar movies, one of the film’s great strengths comes from how the filmmakers envision of fantasy world that has fallen into a domesticated lifestyle very similar to our very own world. While it could be debated that the film lacks some of the same imagination as their other films since the world building seems a bit more minimalistic on the surface via the real world aspects, it all actually serves as a great allegory for the story. The film needed to find a feasible way for the main duo to be able to bring their father back through the use of ancient magic, but in many ways it can also serve as a solid message of being able to respect the old ways of our past. While it makes sense as to why magic went away due to the difficulties of using it, in many ways technology can bring people apart as much as they can bring them together in alternate means, and through the film allowing Ian and barley to embrace the old ways of using magic, it shows how some things can bring people closer that technological innovations can’t. But the film never antagonises the use of technology, but instead uses it in such a way to display how there is a beauty to our own ancestry and why it should be honoured in some regards, even if it means having one final chance to be with a loved one before saying a proper final goodbye. In many ways, the supporting cast help to prove this point; particularly The Manticore played amazingly by Octavia Spencer. A historical and deadly creature once known for her dangerous quests and infamous history has since became a depressed restaurant owner who desperately tries hard to make sure her establishment doesn’t get any bad reviews. But it’s through learning of Ian and Barley’s quest and forgetting to tell them about a dreadful curse that she finally embraces her old ways and learns why she loved being a Manticore so much. She’s also a key contributor to a lot of the film’s great comedy, which finds a unique balance of snarky wit and also a strong sense of heart. The film never feels desperate for laughs and thus finds nice ways of generating laughter from the sentimental aspects of the screenplay along with the charming banter of the brothers. It felt particularly important for this film especially since the comedy needed to embody a character of Ian and Barley’s father through just the exaggerated movements of his legs. It all results in a hugely funny adventure that is able to have its cake and eat it too thanks to the heart found in the adventure.
As for everything else, as always with Pixar, the animation is absolutely stunning and finds a very nice balance between the hyper realistic backgrounds and the slightly more cartoonish character designs. It’s a world that feels very inviting through some of its similar intricacies with our own world and while it might lack some originality, it makes up through its connection to the film’s message. While Michael and Jeff Danna’s music score is unfortunately pretty unmemorable compared to other Pixar films out there, the melodies created for the picture share an undeniable amount of emotion that elevates many moments in the film, especially in its ending to wholly new heights.
Onward might not objectively be the absolute best of the best of Pixar’s entire catalogue, but considering the huge legacy the studio has, it’s pretty unfair to compare it to literally everything else when Onward as it stands is just yet another great bloody movie! Through taking a very personal story and finding the right balance of heart and humour within its central characters and fantastical setting, the film is able to be a rollicking fun time which while not the most imaginative world that Pixar has created, still features a ton of unique elements that in ways can serve as its own unique allegory about embracing the old whilst respecting the new. If you are looking for a great family film, or just a great film to watch with a loved one whether it be a sibling, parent, friend, romantic partner or otherwise, it will be quite the cathartic experience for everyone involved. And coming from Pixar, should we expect anything else?
FINAL RATING: 9/10 (AMAZING)
Ian and Barley’s Brotherly Bond
The Intriguing Suburban Fantasy World
Strong Comedy that isn’t too Overbearing
Strong Messages about the Sibling Bond and Respecting our Past
Slightly Unimaginative Setting