‘Onward’ feels slighter than other Pixar offerings, but the fantasy has a lot of heart.
Kernel Rating: 3 out of 5
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 103 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 10+. This latest Pixar offering seems to skew a bit older in its references and its thematic content, with a plot about two brothers who go on a fantastical quest to see their father one last time. The movie deals primarily with themes of familial loss; the brothers’ father died when they were children, and they discuss his illness and the grief their family has felt since then. The fantasy elements reference mythical beings such as the manticore; there are some fighting scenes, including beings like the manticore and dragons; a scary scene where the characters nearly drown; some chase scenes, including a fight between the brothers and some violent pixies, and another where the brothers have to escape booby traps; some characters kiss; some insults between brothers and implied cursing, such as “son of a …”
By Roxana Hadadi
After a string of sequels including “Finding Dory,” “Cars 3,” “Incredibles 2,” and “Toy Story 4,” Pixar offers its first original film since “Coco” in “Onward.” A more low-key Pixar affair than usual, “Onward” is full of heart but feels slightly familiar. Still, the film is refreshingly intimate with its story, swerving away from the gigantic stakes of previous Pixar films like “Incredibles 2” and focusing more on a specific family and their particular dynamics.
“Onward” is set in a world similar to ours, with suburbs and police officers and sarcastic high school students, with one difference: This world of elves, manticores, pixies, ogres, unicorns, and other mystical animals once had “wonder,” meaning magic. But as electricity and other innovations took hold, the world lost its magic, giving it up for a “simpler way to get by.” In this world lives high schooler Ian (voiced by Tom Holland, of “Spider-Man: Far From Home”), a soon-to-be 16-year-old whose social awkwardness and meekness means he doesn’t have many close friends, and he’s mostly embarrassed by his bombastic older brother Barley (voiced by Chris Pratt, of “Avengers: Endgame”), whose love for fantasy role-playing games and history is unabashed.
Ian hopes to use this birthday to become a “new you,” but his attempt to invite some acquaintances over to his house for cake backfires when Barley rolls in. The two brothers couldn’t be more different, but they’re brought together by mom Laurel (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus), who shares with them a message left by their father, Lightfoot, who died before Ian was born. Although Lightfoot was an accountant, he too had a passion for history, and was convinced that magic did once exist—and he leaves his sons a staff, a magical stone, and a note instructing them to use a magic spell to bring him back to life for one day.
Ian is overjoyed, because he’ll finally meet the father he’s idolized for so long, while Barley, who was too afraid to give his father a final goodbye in his last moments, is both excited and wary. But when the spell goes wrong, they’re left with only the bottom half of their father—materialized from the waist down—and they must go on a quest together to find another magic stone to bring their father entirely back. And with only 24 hours total, the clock is ticking.
The primary message of “Onward” is one of familial love and support, even when personalities and identities are quite different, and that’s reiterated often between Ian and Barley. Barley consistently supports Ian when they discover the younger brother’s natural talent for magic, and encourages him to practice more, to be more passionate, and to tap into his inner energy. Meanwhile, Ian has to come around on Barley, who he at point dismissively calls a “screwup,” and the movie very thoughtfully explores how a more traditionally “successful” sibling should provide some empathy to someone who loves them, even if that person hasn’t fully found their path. The brothers’ dynamic is the most emotionally riveting part of the movie.
But other elements of the film feel less developed. Louis-Dreyfus does nice work as Laurel, the boys’ mother, but the movie pairs her with Octavia Spencer’s Manticore, who unfortunately feeds into some cultural stereotypes about angry black women. Pairing the two women together allows for them to have their own storyline while the brothers do their own thing, but their plot is primarily reactive. And although the movie has a number of very sweet moments, like when the boys dance with their father, still only a bottom half, and bond over his dorky moves, there are long stretches when the movie lacks much humor. The film requires a bit more focus from viewers because of the sometimes-melancholy plot, and might be more appropriate for older audiences.
All in all, “Onward” has a number of moments that work pretty well: some exciting chase scenes, an emotionally compelling conclusion, and engaging voice work from Holland and Pratt. But the movie feels a bit more subdued than a typical Pixar affair, and while the movie wears its heart on its sleeve, it might not be quite as engaging for younger viewers looking for typical Pixar elements—the movie’s lack of a musical thorough line, in particular, might disengage some audiences. On the other hand, at least there’s a dragon!
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