Even on a bad day, Pixar can do better than most. Sure, the champion of computer generated animation have more shiny gold statues than the competition, but that’s not to say there’s been a few glitches in between talking space rangers and superhero families. This isn’t suggesting that Onward is one worth avoiding. Quite the opposite, in fact. It might be one of it’s mid-tier movies with the biggest thing to say.
Feeling like a mish-mash of Zootopia (great buddy cop film) and Shrek, Onward drops us in a world where fauns and domesticated fire-breathing dragons live in a world much like ours. Once a land thriving in magic and adventure, now the greatest risk is getting stuck in rush hour traffic, or rabid unicorns rummaging through your garbage.
Our focus in this fairytale land of the modern age are elf brothers Ian and Barley Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, respectively), who upon the former’s sixteenth birthday, are given a magic staff left behind by their late father who died when Barley was young and before Ian was even born. With this new trinket comes a single-use spell that will allow the boys to see their father for one more day, but things go awry when the first try only brings him back without a top half. From here the two slightly estranged brothers must work together to find a magical McGuffin, and give the spell another try if they want to see their Dad again.
Here’s where that familiar sentimental gut punch comes out swinging in a way that Pixar has turned into an art form. While we may be in a world that’s only vaguely like our own, the core issues it draws attention to are ones that we’re all familiar with and handled with great care under the direction of Dan Scanlon. The matter of loss has been put in the spotlight many times before with Pixar’s previous work, Up, Finding Nemo, The Good Dinosaur and Coco all handle heartache in their own way, but Onward does so differently in that the subject they’re braving to tackle is very much present throughout the story.
It’s an impressive advance from Scanlon, who hasn’t stepped in the director’s chair under the lampshade lineage since Monster’s University. Here he’s clearly learned some lessons, because while there’s plenty of comedic touches as the pair try to follow their father’s often uncontrollable footsteps, the conversations they have about who he was, and how his departure affected them both so differently hits its mark. For Barley, its vague memories of his Dad and ones near the end he’d rather forget. For Ian, it’s an almost idolisation of a person so integral to his life but wasn’t quite a part of it. Both are coming for the anticipated meeting from different points, but their perspectives are ones that audience members will no doubt relate to. The only issue in getting that message across is with the vocal talent sending it.
Onward is a tender, heartfelt try at understanding that holding on to some things is as important as letting go of others.
In the plethora of stand-out characters that have come from this studio, Onward seems to have the most forgettable bunch if only for the ill-fitting cast members voicing them. Holland and Pratt have a flicker of chemistry together (being former Marvel mates will no doubt have a hand in it), but neither fit the awkward teenager, or the D&D enthusiast that are on screen. Not even Pratt’s days from the earliest era of Parks and Recreation are on level with the loveable goon that’s more oaf than elf in Barley, and Holland’s efforts of playing the awkward teen only amplify the fact that he makes a better Spider-Man than he does Peter Parker. Also, there’s real magic missed between Julia Louis-Dreyfus as worried mother Laurel, and Octavia Spencer as former legendary warrior, The Manticore, who have every chance to steal the show and don’t.
Ultimately though, the story isn’t about them, and on some level it’s not even about the Lightfoot brothers themselves. Onward is a tender, heartfelt try at understanding that holding on to some things is as important as letting go of others. Quite a quest to embark on, but certainly one worth taking.