Onward (United States, 2020)

March 06, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Onward Poster

Pixar has run out of material for sequels, so it’s back to the drawing board and the creation of original films with the hope that one or more of them will develop a strong enough following to warrant follow-ups down the line. Onward, the first non-franchise Pixar offering since Coco, is more likely to achieve the moderate box office success of 2015’s The Good Dinosaur than the bigger haul of the 2017 late-year release. While Coco boasted a strong (although by no means exclusive) appeal to Latinos, Onward doesn’t have an obvious built-in audience, unless you count D&D players.

Onward has a more generic appeal than what we have come to expect from Pixar, which at one point delighted in stretching the boundaries of what was conventional for the genre. This film could fit in comfortably with fare from Fox or Universal or any other animation studio. It’s solidly entertaining, contains an element of emotional resonance, looks and sounds great, but isn’t special. Director Dan Scanlon previously helmed one of the most straightforward of Pixar’s sequels, Monsters University. Here, working without the safety net of familiar characters, he proceeds cautiously, using the framework of a videogame (progression through levels to a boss battle) but without the tongue-and-cheek, meta approach of Jumanji. I’m tempted to argue that Onward would make for a better fantasy RPG than a movie.

This isn’t intended to damn with faint praise; Onward is engaging and enjoyable. It postulates what a modern version of a traditional D&D-type fantasy milieu might look like. There’s not nearly enough world-building but I can understand that considering the prime audience’s young age. We get technologically advanced, skyscraper-clogged cities and cozy suburbs where elves, centaurs, cyclopses, and manticores live in relative harmony. Magic and the “old ways” have been forgotten except for those who like to play “historical-based” tabletop games.

Elves Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) and his older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), live with their mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and their centaur stepfather, Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez). Their father, Wilden (Kyle Bornheimer), died when Ian was in utero. He therefore has no memories of his dad while Barley boasts only three hazy ones. On the occasion of Ian’s sixteenth birthday, he is given a present that Wilden left with Laurel to bestow on that auspicious occasion: a wizard’s staff with a magic crystal. After Barley tries and fails to make magic, Ian shows an aptitude for it. One of his first acts is to activate a spell intended to bring back Wilden from the dead for 24 hours: one precious day to spend with a dead parent. However, there’s not enough energy in the crystal to complete the resurrection – all that returns is Wilden from the waist down. In order to bring back the upper half, the brothers need to embark on a quest for a second magical gem – one that requires daring acts of bravery and fights against sprites and a very unusual sort of dragon.

The voice cast isn’t without star power: two Marvel icons – Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and Star Lord (Chris Pratt) lend their voices to the project. This is Holland’s second time in only a few months doing voicework (having previously made Spies in Disguise) and he’s a natural. Julie Louis-Dreyfus is the boys’ mom and Octavia Spencer is a helpful manticore. Like Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, these four actors are able to submerge themselves into their animated avatars to the extent that we’re hearing the characters not the men and women providing their voices. Visually, Onward is the equal of any recent Pixar film; it doesn’t try to raise any bars.

Animated films come in two forms: those that exist purely to entertain and distract and those that want to tell a story and convey something meaningful. Unsurprisingly for a Pixar film, Onward lands in the latter category. Although the narrative follows a traditional quest trajectory, it’s as much about the relationship between the brothers as whether they’ll get to say a final goodbye to their halfway-regenerated father. Ian and Barley both learn important things about sacrifice and the resolution doesn’t invalidate those choices. Adults will likely gravitate toward the film’s dramatic elements while kids will love the visually impressive but otherwise unremarkable action sequences. There’s something here for everyone, even if the overall package isn’t likely to go down as the next Disney/Pixar “classic.”

During its theatrical run, Onward is preceded by a five-minute Simpsons cartoon that is being billed as welcoming the long-lived franchise under the Disney umbrella. There is no spoken dialogue so, although familiar faces appear, recognizable voices don’t.

Onward (United States, 2020)

Director: Dan Scanlon
Cast: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Mel Rodriguez, Kyle Bornheimer
Home Release Date: 2020-05-19
Screenplay: Dan Scanlon & Jason Headley & Keith Bunin
Cinematography: Sharon Calahan, Adam Habib
Music: Jeff Danna, Mychael Danna
U.S. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2020-03-06
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: Animated
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1