Last weekend I had the chance to see a pre-screening of Disney Pixar’s fantasy adventure, Onward. I love nearly all of Pixar’s incredible catalog of films, but there is just something about a Pixar original film that sets it apart from other studios. As the studio’s previous two films were sequels, Onward is Pixar’s first truly original film in nearly three years. It is directed by Monster’s University director Dan Scanlon and stars the voice acting talents of Chris Pratt and Tom Holland.
Spoiler-Free First Impressions
As anyone who has seen a trailer knows, Onward takes place in a world where magic used to play a big role in the community. It is a world full of wizards, elves, trolls, centaurs, manticores and pretty much any other mythical beast you can think of. They all live together in a city that basically functions as a modern-day human city and magic is nowhere to be found. As I learned more and more about the concept of this film, I couldn’t help but feel a little nervous. This idea of mythical creatures living like humans sounded a little underwhelming and frankly like a missed opportunity.
After seeing the movie on Saturday I am pleased to announce that Onward exceeded my expectations on almost every level. First of all, the detail that can be seen in the character designs is incredible. This is especially present in Ian and Barley’s hair. Thousands of individual hairs were animated, each with the ability to move independently from the hair next to it. So there I am, five minutes into the movie, and I’m just staring as Ian’s hair bounces around with his body language as he talks to his mom. I realize I’m a total nerd, but I just found that to be extremely impressive.
The movie itself isn’t nearly as funny as I expected it to be based on the voice cast. I kind of expected Onward to be one of Pixar’s most comedy-centric films to date, but it turns out I was dead wrong. That’s not to say that it isn’t a funny movie, because it definitely has its moments. However, it is much more heartfelt than I could’ve expected.
This film takes place in a span of about 24 hours. This short timespan can often make for a tricky movie to write, as it is hard for characters to experience a significant amount of growth in that amount of time. A couple war movies that I’ve watched recently that deal with this are 1917 and Saving Private Ryan. 1917, which is a phenomenal film, by the way, takes the route of not really pushing much character growth at all, instead of focusing on the experiences he is having. Saving Private Ryan on the other hand attempts to craft moments for characters to grow, and they really kind of fall on deaf ears with everything else that is going on during the movie. I think Onward navigates this predicament extremely well, as the growth the characters experience really just hinges on coming to grips with the reality they have experienced their whole lives, but have maybe taken for granted. It’s simple and doesn’t require a huge internal change in a character, yet the payoff is extremely powerful.
The last act of this film is definitely the strongest, but overall I had a great time and would recommend Onward to just about anyone. The message, and the execution of that message, is very unique and is done in a way that really lands with most of the audience. If we’re pulling at threads, there are definitely some inconsistencies with the use of magic, and some opportunities that might have been missed as well. I will say that this movie will absolutely hit harder for men, but there’s sure to be something for everyone.
Alright, let’s get into some spoilers.
Warning!!! SPOILERS AHEAD!
SERIOUSLY, IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN ONWARD YET YOU CAN COME BACK LATER!
LAST SPOILER WARNING!
There are just a few things I wanted to mention that would be considered spoilers. In general, the magic portrayed throughout is a bit wonky and inconsistent. For starters, Ian and Barley need to find a Phoenix gem in order to perform the spell that brings their father back for a day. However, it seems like pretty much every other spell, including some quite powerful ones, don’t require any gem at all and can simply be performed with a staff. I never really understood why that spell needs a Phoenix gem but I guess it is because……plot? Also, in the opening scene, it is mentioned that people don’t use magic anymore because it was so hard to master, yet Ian seems to master it in 24 hours. Literally within 24 of picking up the staff, Ian is performing the most difficult spell in Barley’s spellbook. The spells themselves also felt a bit inconsistent. For example, when attempting to use a growth spell on the gas can, Ian accidentally shrinks Barley. The spell wears off in about an hour or so. Later, however, Ian uses the growth spell on a cheese puff so they can ride it down a river, and they don’t seem one bit concerned about the spell wearing off. He also enlarges a splinter to become a new wizard staff, and the staff is still large days later. I am definitely being a little nitpicky here, but if I noticed it, someone else will as well.
Outside of the inconsistencies with magic, I do think this movie is brilliantly written. You think you are going to be taken on a journey of two brothers on a journey to spend one final day with their dad. I expected it would end with feelings of reconciliation and closure. Those feelings are there, but in a whole different way than I anticipated. This story is hardly about kids finding closure with their day and is instead much more focused on the relationship between the brothers. Ian, who has been longing for a relationship with the father that died before he was born, realized that even though he never had a father, he always had his older brother Barley. In a way, Barley fulfilled money of the roles the Ian longed for from a father but never realized it. In the waning moments of the film, it becomes clear that only one of the brothers will be able to see their father, while the other fends off the cement dragon (ya it’s weird but don’t ask). Barley offers to distract it, but then Ian replies with something along the lines of, “No, you need to go see dad. I never had a dad, but I’ve always had you, and that’s enough.” That line kind of tore me up and made for a great resolution to the emotional character arcs.
When it comes down to it, Onward doesn’t quite hold my attention throughout the entirety of the runtime like the Pixar legends of The Incredibles, Toy Story 3, and some of the other elites. It does, however, display the heart and messaging the Pixar has become so known for in the past. It is a fabulously animated film. It may not get the recognition because it doesn’t feature beautiful nature/space scenes and colors like say Wall-e, A Good Dinosaur, Moana, or Coco, but animation purists like myself can tell how incredible it really looks. With enough laughs to keep the kids engaged, and enough heart to make even the most heartless adults tear up, it’s a good time for the whole family. The world created for Onward is full of possibilities, and I fully expect to be seeing more from this franchise in the future.