Principal Cast : Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Octavia Spencer, Mel Rodriguez, Kyle Bornheimer, Lena Waithe, Ali Wong, Greg Griffin, Tracy Ullman, Wilmer Valderrama, John Ratzenberger.
Synopsis: Set in a suburban fantasy world, two teenage elf brothers embark on a quest to discover if there is still magic out there.
Despite a desperately weird plot, Pixar’s Onward remains an endearing, cute, splendidly animated family film that offers some meaningful messaging and appropriate emotional themes within its dazzling visuals. There’s Pixar’s typically engaging supporting cast, a plethora of hilarious pop-culture spoofs and some delightful resonance to audiences both young and old, and the voice cast – led by Marvel Cinematic Universe alumni Tom Holland and Chris Pratt – provide the sparkling dialogue with enough zest and energy to engage the viewer inside the bizarre fantasy-reality world on offer. Think Monsters Inc, but where everything was monster-themed, here it’s Fairy Tale Fantasy themed.
In a modernised fairy world populated by mythical creatures, young elves Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt) live with their widowed mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss). The world was once a magical place, but as technology grew the old ways were left behind until the land closely resembled our world, with all its problems. On his sixteenth birthday, Ian is given a present from his late father, Wilden (Kyle Bomheimer), a wizard staff that sets them on a magical quest. You see, the staff also contains a powerful gem that has the ability to return Wilden to life for a single day; when Ian accidentally only gets half way through bringing his father back to life, they’re left with a sentient lower half of his body. Forced to track down another one of the gems, Ian and Barley encounter many obstacles to obtaining their goal, including a recalcitrant Manticore (Octavia Spencer) and constant pursuit of their worried future stepfather, Laurel’s boyfriend Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez), a centaur who happens to be a member of the local police force. With less than a day to resume bringing Wilden completely back, and unaware of a deadly curse upon the secret hidden gem, will Ian and Barley put aside their differences to work together and find a way to achieve their goal?
It’s fair to say we’re a long way from talking toys and sentient monsters here. Onward has one of the most bizarre plots in an animated film I’ve seen in a while, and I’ve seen a few. The post-modern mythical world, inhabited by elves, centaurs, unicorns and the like, is unlike any other Pixar have yet created, although the routine of filtering such wonder through a lens of familiarity, setting it in a world slightly adjacent to our own, comes with its own problems. The quest narrative of the film would have played equally as well had we not had the typical high-school drama, parental anxiety, or social infiltration to contend with that we do here, and I think the film takes too easy a time giving us parodies of modern life juxtaposed within the aesthetic of a Tolkien-esque setting.
Remember how Monsters University took American educational iconography and subjected it to the clever sideways design motifs of the Monsters world? That’s what Onward does a lot, and while it mostly works you get the feeling it plays things really safe. This is Pixar, not Dreamworks, and I expect my Pixar to push the boundaries. Onward doesn’t push boundaries, it limits itself within Pixar’s well-trod formula – a formula nearly blown wide open with Inside Out, but routinely returned to ever since. The script by director Dan Scanlon, Keith Bunin and Jason Headley is filled with a sense of predictable family-oriented themes, such as social ostracization, finding oneself and a hero arc that transitions all too easily from undereager padawan to outright Jedi-level skill in a heartbeat, handled with the studio’s respectful sense of grandeur and precision. The characters seem to follow a formula of sorts, quirky characters we’re instantly familiar with in spite of the outlandish setting, while the dialogue, especially the patter of Chris Pratt’s older brother character, Barley, feels slick and manufactured to a razor-sharp point. This is a film they’re hoping makes you feel something, only not in that sneaks-up-on-you organic way great films do, but rather with knowing looks and a somewhat groanworthy inevitability.
And yet, as we’ve come to expect from a studio the calibre of Pixar, Onward has a certain magical quality that can’t dampen my enthusiasm for the story. Despite its off-the-wall character roster (the creepiness of a pair of legs walking alongside our two heroes is lessened by a well placed magical blue glow) there’s plenty of fun and laughs to be had here. The playful tone works well enough to keep the story from becoming too maudlin – having a dead parent is a risky move for any animated film where kids are the demographic, and if you get the balance wrong it’s all over – which is a blessing when the emotionally cathartic finale wallops you across the face (I admit, I did tear up a touch), but you feel manipulated a little too much when you should be totally engrossed in the storytelling. Coco was a fantastic film that earned its tears and its emotional climax, whereas Onward, in striving for similar feelings (albeit using a different route), fumbles things a bit.
The voice cast all do solid work, with Holland’s Ian and Pratt’s Barley providing much of the film’s subtle material. Julia Louis-Dreyfuss is a standout as the boy’s ever-loving mother, struggling to bring her sons up without a father figure to work with, while Octavia Spencer, as the Manticore, is a hoot. It also goes without saying that Onward’s animation is spectacular, even though I just said it. Indeed, the colours pop, the action is frantic, and the use of focus, framing and editing is absolutely first class. Musically, the score by Oscar-winner Mychael and younger brother Jeff Danna is appropriate yet largely unmemorable, evocative without remaining indelible, and I felt the pang of Randy Newman’s absence in this Pixar moment more than I ever have – he’d have been perfect for this machismo-seeking venture I think. The Danna siblings work on The Good Dinosaur was equally sweet but also equally indifferent: maybe I’m just not a fan of their style, but I think Onward’s fairy-tale aesthetic warranted a more fairy-tale-esque soundtrack, skewed to modern expectations.
Maybe I’m being too harsh on Onward, but I reiterate: I expect my Pixar to push boundaries, and Onward refuses to do that. Stripping back the outlandish production design and obvious creative genius at play in the visuals, you have a simple kid-missing-his-dad story that, had it not been buried deep within a brotherly love subplot and a load of superficial modern references, should have been a knockout. That it isn’t is deeply disappointing. Overly complicating a film often runs the risk of having it fail – where Onward disappoints, Inside Out lands a knockout blow, and that’s the difference between the truly great Pixar and the merely mediocre Pixar.