It’s time for a new Pixar film again! In my book, Pixar can do no wrong, as a studio they have a remarkably good grip on narrative and visual storytelling and I can indeed confirm that Dan Scanlon’s Onward is here to make you weep like a baby.
The story follows two young elf brothers, the lanky and awkward Ian (voiced by Spidey himself Tom Holland) and the more brash and silly Barley (Chris Pratt, also known as Star-Lord). On Ian’s 16th birthday the brothers receive a gift from their deceased father. It’s a magical staff, one that’s able to bring their dad back for one whole day.
Things, of course, go horrendously wrong and the brothers only manage to bring back half of their dad, the bottom half to be exact. They must find another Phoenix gem to attempt to finish the spell and bring back the rest of their dad and the quest leads the boys to an epic adventure.
Onward doesn’t necessarily offer anything new or shiny to the genre of Pixar canon, but it executes its narrative with so much heart, it’s hard not to fall in love with Ian and Barley and their magical quest. There’s plenty of humour, mostly thanks to the rogue pair of legs. Director Scanlon has used his own experiences growing up without a dad to fuel this undoubtedly emotional story and it’s remarkable how well the team has managed to bring it to life.
Onward’s biggest issue might be the fact that its narrative doesn’t offer any surprises along the way; it steadily runs towards an inevitable ending we can all see coming a mile away. But damn if it isn’t well done. While Ian and Barley try to complete their quest, the boys’ mum is trying to find the two before they get themselves seriously hurt. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is delightful as the voice of Laurel as is Octavia Spencer as the Manticore, but the narrative slows down significantly when we’re following them. The brothers’ quest is so much more potent and interesting than The Manticore drinking some energy drinks and tilting the tiny car with her weight.
Onward is also filled with a lot of cool little references and some quite imaginative creatures. My personal favourite are the unicorns acting like raccoons, but they aren’t utilised enough. The film begins with a voiceover which describes how the world was filled with magic, but it was slowly replaced by technology. It’s a neat concept, but again, it’s not really used enough in the narrative apart from allowing the story to have magic.
Pratt and Holland provide fantastic voice performances, with especially Holland being a standout here. He brings so much authentic, nervous energy to Ian, it’s hard to imagine him as the web-slinging, world-saving superhero we know him as. According to producer Kori Rae, Pratt and Holland only had one recording session together, but through careful editing and a considerable amount of talent all around, Pratt and Holland pull off the brotherly love and chemistry here well.
Most importantly, Scanlon treats the story and both Ian and Barley’s character arcs with respect and understanding. While for most of the film, we’re seeing the action through Ian’s eyes and are asked to relate to him, it’s actually Barley who in the end stole my heart and made me weep. Lately, animation has stepped it up narratively and tackled several real-life, relatable issues more hands-on. Gone are straight-up villains; Onward doesn’t have one either and it makes it a much better film for it. There are some surprisingly tragic notes and nuances found within Onward and the battles fought here are mostly internal.
The ending is classic Pixar, both uplifting and heartbreaking in the best possible way, even if it’s predictable and a little uninspired. It speaks to us all universally; whether we’ve lost a loved one or if we’ve lost our own place in the world. Or maybe we just really miss someone right now. Regardless, Onward may not be top-tier Pixar but it’s a rewarding watch, filled with great voice performances. It shines brightest when it touches upon the real issues we all face in life. Life lesson; hug your family tonight, whoever they might be.
Dir: Dan Scanlon
Scr: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin
Cast: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer
Prd: Pete Docter, Kori Rae
DOP: Sharon Calahan, Adam Habib
Music: Jeff Danna, Mychael Danna
Run time: 102 min
Onward is in cinemas 6th of March.