2020 is probably going to be remembered for a lot of things, as most years are, but it’s hard to imagine it being more remembered for anything other than Covid-19, aka coronavirus. The global pandemic has shuttered businesses, cost people their jobs (and lives), while turning us all into hermits. Social distancing is a phrase we’ve all learned and are unlikely to forget. And as we move beyond this era which will hopefully end in a return to normalcy, there will be things forever associated with this period in time and one of those items forever linked to Covid-19 is the Pixar animated feature Onward.
Onward was wide-released on March 6, 2020. Roughly two weeks later, the film industry came to a screeching halt. Even when the film opened, some were already staying away from crowded places before many states in the US started forcing closures of non-essential businesses. As a result, Onward became Pixar’s lowest grossing movie through no fault of its own. As of this writing, it’s estimated to have earned a little over 100 million dollars. With no end in sight to the current climate, Disney saw no reason to keep it in theaters. Disney decided to make the best of the current situation and quickly pivoted Onward to digital using it as a lure to get more subscribers to its relatively new streaming service Disney+. Patrons could pay to rent the film digitally on March 20, or wait for it to arrive on Disney+ on April 4, less than a month after its theatrical release. Because it’s so new and people are forced to stay at home, it’s possible more eyeballs will be trained on this film than some other recent Pixar fare because it’s quite a novelty to have a brand new Pixar feature so readily available.
Onward is a buddy comedy starring two brothers, Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt), who embark on a “quest” to restore their late father to life for one day. The hook of the feature is that it’s set in a modern-day fantasy world. The premise is essentially what would a classic fantasy world have evolved into once things like electricity were discovered? The answer seems to be that magic was largely abandoned in favor of modern technology which advanced largely in step with our world. The main difference is that elves and orcs live side-by-side and some never found better housing than hollowed out giant mushrooms. The film was conceived by director Dan Scanlon who shares a similar backstory to the central characters here in that he and his brother lost their dad at a young age. Jason Headley and Keith Bunin were brought on to refine the screenplay and the story centers on the brother protagonists and explores their relationship with each other.
Ian is the more central figure of the story. He’s about to turn 16 and is a shy individual with few friends. Barley, his older brother, is more boisterous and in-love with the world’s fantastical history. He’s also a bit of an activist, as he sometimes clashes with their mother’s (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) police officer boyfriend (a centaur voiced by Mel Rodriguez) when he stands in the way of demolition crews looking to tare down old world relics. When their mother was pregnant with Ian, and Barely was quite young, their father passed away after suffering an illness. With Ian coming to age though, their mother presents them with a gift their father left for them and it turns out to be a magic staff with instructions how to bring their father back for one day. Ian sees this as a way to finally meet the man he only knows through pictures and an audio recording. When the spell goes wrong though, the boys are forced to seek out a new source of magic which takes them on a road trip. Barley, being a history buff, is excited to embark on what he considers a quest while Ian just wants to get it done and over with as quickly as possible so they have the maximum amount of time available to them to spend with their dad.
The film is largely a comedy with some fantastic set pieces and visual moments. The humor is derived from both physical comedy and conventional gags. The film mostly puts the visual gags of introducing fantasy creatures into suburbia upfront freeing it to be more creative as the film rolls along. It’s genuinely funny, though like the best Pixar features it relies more on heart and characters. Barley, being the excitable one, is often impulsive which clashes with Ian’s cautious approach. Barley would rather follow his gut while Ian wants to stick to a map the two find early on. The two need each other though, for it turns out Ian has an aptitude for magic and is able to make use of their father’s staff and the spells in Barley’s possession normally relegated to a Dungeons & Dragons type of game. And Ian needs Barley’s help because he can do practical things like drive. There are natural moments of conflict that can arise from this situation, and it’s easy to see these moments coming as Ian largely keeps quiet and defers to Barley, but you know he’s simmering on the inside at times. The film is a bit of a disguised film about what it means to be brothers. It seems to want viewers to think of it as a father-son pic at the onset, before pivoting to this brotherhood theme.
As someone who grew up reading lots of fantasy books, I welcome this setting and premise of Onward. Ian’s magical staff starts off rather neat, but it does threaten to become a crutch in order to advance the plot. The boys often run into an obstacle with the answer to such being a new spell for Ian to try out that Barley suggests. The film does at least utilize this arrangement to force the characters to learn how to work together. Initially, Barely’s suggestions on spells will be met with doubt from Ian with the miscasts even affecting Barley in a negative fashion. Ian will have to learn to trust his brother’s knowledge of the arcane, as well as his own abilities, in order to actually wield it effectively. It still ends up functioning as a deus ex machina, for the most part, but at least there’s the added goal of bringing the two characters closer.
Because the film does deal with death in some way, it naturally lends itself to comparisons to Coco (and I suspect the upcoming film Soul will as well). It’s a bit unfortunate as Coco is quite possibly the best film Pixar has ever produced, it’s certainly my favorite. And it’s a wonderful film that Onward really can’t match. The plot beats here are pretty easy to see coming and it’s basically accepted at the outset that this is a film that will try to make you cry come the end. It’s at least more sincere and focused than a similar Pixar flick The Good Dinosaur. Where that film felt manipulative at times, this one does a better job of being sincere and earning its watery moments. Some viewers might feel conflicted about the ending, but it’s at least the one moment where the film does wander off the formula a touch. It’s accepted that things won’t go perfectly for Ian and Barley in their quest to be reunited with their father, but that also won’t stop viewers from yearning for that outcome.
Ian and Barley’s adventure is the main focus of the film, and it’s smart to do so. There are some solid side characters, but they have a hard time taking our focus away from Ian and Barley. The main side plot involves their mother , Laurel, who pairs up with a manticore named Corey (Octavia Spencer), who happens to know where the brothers are heading and, more importantly, knows they’re about to unleash a curse upon the world. The two are in a race to stop them, but we mostly know how that will play out based on similar stories. The brothers also have a couple of brushes with the law, but that’s mostly resolved fairly quickly before the film can get all Smokey and the Bandit on us. Mostly when the film was away from the brothers I just wanted to get back to them. I understand it needs to show us what’s happening elsewhere so the eventual meet-up between all of the characters is earned, but it wasn’t as fun as it could have been. Which is a shame, because the characters of Laurel and Corey have chemistry together and I think there was room for them in the film, but they just weren’t able to find it.
Mychael and Jeff Danna handled the film’s score and it’s not afraid to lean into that fantasy setting vibe. There’s also an original song over the ending credits performed by Brandi Carlile. The score is mostly fine, though I was disappointed with it in some areas. It doesn’t take many chances to meld the fantasy with modern sounds. When it goes for a gag in which Barley selects some questing music it also falls flat. Maybe they originally intended to license something, but instead it’s just bland synth-rock when I was looking for something bombastic akin to Rhapsody of Fire.
Onward is a film rescued by its heart. It has a solid premise for a story and finds a way to arrive at a clever conclusion, even if the plot beats to get there feel very familiar. I think it could have done more with its setting. The idea is there, and some of the gags are well-played, but the whole thing feels surprisingly underplayed both visually and in the score. The actual technical abilities of the film also are not wow-inducing. Pixar is somewhat harmed by its own legacy in that respect since we’re so used to the studio raising the bar, but instead Onward is just comfortably fine. It does save its best piece of technical art for the end, which is a logical move, but it’s also not the type of visual you’ll walk away from saying “You have got to see this!” The relationship of brothers Ian and Barely though is what makes the film, and it’s not afraid to lean on the two. Pratt and Holland are both charismatic and believable in their roles and the characters are handled with grace. It’s hard for the audience to side with one over the other. They’re both right in some places, and weak in others. It’s easy to relate to both and thus hard to even pick a favorite.
It should also go without saying that the focus of the film on loss is easy to relate to. We either are that someone or know someone who has lost their father. Many can even relate to Ian as someone who never knew a parent due to tragedy. It’s a very compelling plot device to ask an audience what they would do in order to have one more day with someone they love. As a result, it’s almost impossible to separate this film from real world examples. If the film dwelled on that too much it would have felt manipulative, but instead it presents the premise and then lets it mostly simmer on the back burner. Because that sense of loss is such a personal thing, I suspect this movie will appeal more to people willing to allow themselves to “go there” and be vulnerable for 100 minutes or so. I would say Onward will be among the most polarizing for Pixar, but I think that’s too strong a word. There will be some who cite this as their new favorite from the studio, but few will number it among the worst. I think the divide will largely fall on the line of those who consider it great, and those who found it entertaining.
I lean more towards the latter, as I think the film offers a totally worthwhile and enjoyable experience, but it won’t be threatening to dethrone the likes of Coco and Finding Nemo for me. And in many ways I don’t think my opinion matters. Onward feels like a movie made by Dan Scanlon (and other talented people) for Dan Scanlon to process and deal with the tragedy in his past. He wasn’t able to wield a magical staff, but hopefully he and his brother were able to arrive at a similar place to Ian and Barley. And ultimately, I hope Onward ended up being the movie he wanted to make.