Many are saying that Onward (2020) is lesser Pixar or middling Pixar, and that seems like such a sleight to this film. Pixar has an extensive library of films, and many have impacted the worlds of their audience with few exceptions – and many of which are questionable sequels. Onward deserves a little more respect…and while the story is straightforward, the themes and topics addressed in the film are valuable and well-executed, both through the writing and the great performances of the talented voice cast.
In a world full of magical creatures (i.e. elves, unicorns, dragons, etc.) who have given up magic for a more mundane existence – because, as it is simply stated in the film, magic takes a lot of effort and technology is just easier – an elf by the name of Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) is turning 16. His older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt) – who kind of gets lost in fantasy games based on historical truths of their world – and his mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), is planning his birthday celebration. It turns out that their father, who died just before Ian was born, left a special present for the two boys; a magical staff that will allow them to cast a spell that will bring him back for one full day. However, the spell doesn’t quite work, and they find themselves with only the lower half of their father and a quest to get a phoenix stone to return the rest of him before the spell wears off.
The plot is simple and ultimately feels very much like a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. Of course, that format is built into the fantasy setting, and Barley’s love of these types of games is notable, so it totally works and feels very familiar to any gamers out there. The MacGuffin they seek falls squarely into the Road-Trip genre, and like in many of those movies, it’s not the end that matters…but the journey itself. That’s where so much goodness in this movie stems from. The plethora of characters and scenarios the brothers find themselves in are fun, and often quite comical. Pratt is bringing a very Jack Black-meshed-with-Andy Dwyer vibe to Barley that works well in the fantasy setting and his “doofus” persona. The older brother as a screw-up that Ian is embarrassed by takes center stage on the quest, and really rang true for so much of the emotional build-up the movie puts into it.
The characters in the film and the lessons that Ian experiences are what makes this film rise above the claims of “middling Pixar”. There is a level of sheer joy that one could experience while watching this film, especially if the viewer has ever been a fantasy nerd. It is, in a way, seeing oneself depicted on the big screen as your D&D character or your World of Warcraft avatar. Barley and Ian are elves, but the world they are living in far more resembles our own. Until that Wizard’s staff touches Ian’s hand, magic appears to be dead. The revelation that Ian has power – and that he is far more powerful than he’s ever considered himself to be – is one of many things that he has to learn about over the course of this film. The range of emotions that Ian and Barley have to go through (fear, excitement, anger, paranoia…and pretty much everything, to be honest) is handled quite deftly by Dan Scanlon. Perhaps there is a “nerd” disconnect for some of the audience – but if you see yourself in these characters, there is no question that you’ll love this film.
Onward clearly isn’t getting the push that many Pixar/Disney films would usually get, and it’s a real shame. It’s perfectly enjoyable, and the world looks fantastic. Plus, non-fantasy based minds will be introduced to a Manticore voiced by Octavia Spencer! How can you not find joy in that? Onward earns the Not Quite Golden, Ponyboy rating.