Onward – Movie review

The first promotional material for ‘Onward’ came to us last year in the form of a teaser trailer that mostly worked to lay out the premise of the film, an adventure tale with fantastical creatures but set in modern suburbia. Sure the animation looked good and anything from Pixar is sure to catch the interest of many including myself but the real hook was that premise. We had seen something similar done two years earlier by the Netflix Will Smith vehicle ‘Bright’ and leaving that film, majority of the discourse seemed to be that it had a great premise that was wasted by terrible writing, I thought so as well. Now seeing that Pixar was taking a shot at the same kind of material, the thought was “well, if anybody could do it right, it’s the guys over at Pixar.” but still something still felt off to me after seeing that teaser, something just didn’t feel right.

‘Onward’ tells the tale of a world once dominated by magic which civilization quickly abandoned when it realized that it was too much of a hustle to master and instead opted for consumerism….I mean technology. In present day where the world practices little to no magic, our story focuses on Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), a teenager lacking in self-confidence and his older brother Barley, a history and magic fanatic. They lost their father shortly before Ian was born and their mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dryfuss) has a new boyfriend, police officer Colt bronco whom both of the boys dislike.
On Ian’s birthday, the two boys receive a magic staff that their father left them before he died, he wanted them to have it when Ian turned sixteen and left instructions of a spell that the boys can use to bring him back for one day. Things however go wrong when they mess up the spell and only manage to bring back half of their father (only his legs). Now they have to rush against time looking for a McGuffin in the form of a magic crystal to complete the spell. From this point, the film sets itself up with the classic Pixar trope of two characters who don’t get along very well going on a tumultuous trip together and treating us to their fun dynamic as they learn to overcome their differences and triumphantly achieve their goal, case in point; Toy Story, Up, Inside out and Finding Nemo. However, while those films succeeded in the chemistry between their characters and crafting a compelling narrative, ‘Onward’ falls completely short.
Our two leads together are not interesting at all, they drudge into the usual ‘young brother finds older brother overbearing, dynamic. This might have been a minor issue had there been more things happening around them but seeing that a majority of the film involves you being in the same car as these two with a pair of legs that can’t talk, it goes a long way in dimming the spark you expect from this kind of story. You’d expect a sense of wonder to come from a world full of fantastical creatures but that’s not really the case here, what you get in the place of that is a subtle and very faint commentary on capitalism as well as character moments that are supposed to be heartwarming but instead feel like a step the filmmakers were told to take to try and manipulate their audience or at least attempt to milk an ounce of emotion from this dull venture.

Whenever the narrative shifts perspective to the boys’ mother, Laurel, it takes the same blow. We see her enlist the help of the Manticore to help find her sons and we are again subjected to two characters driving in a car without any sort of interesting spirit. For a fantasy film, the major theme seems to be driving and I’m left wondering why these characters had to be fantastical in the first place, I may as well be watching top gear and get 10 times more intrigue from the wacky exploits of three middle-aged men.
There’s however an attempt to boil up the wearisome story with some interesting set pieces the best one being one where Ian is able to conjure up an invisible bridge reminiscent of Indiana Jones & The last crusade. That, the look of the film as well as the animation briefly reminded me that I was watching a Pixar film, the highest standard of 3D animation and it was reassuring to see that they’re still looking out for their reputation in regards to technical brilliance. However as far as story goes, this was nothing to sing about. My initial thoughts on their previous original outing, Coco (2017), were that it was a fairly well done film with scarce glimpses of brilliance. After seeing Onward I realize that I may have been too harsh on Coco, that was a wonderful film that took great care in its world-building and storytelling. The characters were so rich and layered and there seemed to be extra care given to crafting each of them. The story may have taken some predictable turns but at least they all felt completely organic. Onward is an original Pixar film that feels more like a generic DreamWorks sequel. It obeys all the rules set to capture an audience but does so with no heart, the moments that are poised to make you cry end up feeling like just another objective in the Pixar checklist. The result is a project that feels like it was made to pass time between more interesting projects.
The filmmakers of onward may however not be entirely to blame here, they managed to get good performances from all the actors except maybe Chris Pratt who appears to be doing his worst Jack Black impression, you could have gotten Jack Black instead, it’s not controversial to have him do both Kung Fu panda and a Pixar character. The writing is also rather decent, it follows all the basic rules of screenwriting to a tee, and the structure is without fault. The problem with Onward is its premise and though it may look interesting from a safe distance, it’s a terrible one once put into practice and that’s what seemed off to me when I saw the teaser, I just didn’t realize it till I saw the film. You have these fairies, elves, dragons and centaurs among others that you put in a modern setting and conform them to our normal way of living. What you get is a genre piece that thrives on magic and wonder completely stripped of its magic and wonder. It’s a story that was doomed from its very conception.

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