A surprisingly entertaining and mould-breaking experience from Pixar studios.
In a world of monsters and magic, now progressed into a contemporary world with jobs, cars, and homes, two elven brothers have reconciled with the loss of their father. But the youngest, Ian, never knew his father, but a forgotten magic might be able to bring him back.
Disney Pixar have been on the ropes in recent years. Apart from 2017’s Coco, the studio has been pumping out sequel after sequel with Finding Dory, Cars 3, Incredibles 2, Toy Story 4, all in rapid succession, giving a slight sense of creative bankruptcy in an otherwise creatively renowned studio. So one could be forgiven to look at Onward‘s promotion and trailer with some scepticism. It looked like a Dreamworks idea; a mixture of Shrek and the ill-fated Bright, a fantasy monster riff on real life. Plus, our starpower is the obvious choice: Chris Pratt and Tom Holland, Disney pulling from their endless Marvel Studio pool of talent.
But, surprisingly, there’s a lot of Pixar magic inside Onward.
The film is predominantly a road-trip movie, set around the classic hero’s journey storytelling with our two brothers going off on a quest. However it starts out a little more than that; with Ian (the younger brother, voiced by Holland) as a socially awkward shut-in, and his brother Barley (voiced by Pratt) as an overbearing older brother who believes that the myths of magic and sorcery are real. There is great chemistry here between the two, whether born from the experience the two actors have had with Marvel or not, these two have a great push and pull. While Ian is socially awkward, he does have common sense and an understanding of the world, and Barley may be the stronger more outward one, he is the nerd; playing a proximity of Dungeons & Dragons, while protesting over the destruction of “historical” landmarks.
This chemistry is bolstered by the two voice actors not being overly obvious. One might shy away from having Chris Pratt in another movie, or two Marvel heavyweights in one story, but in fact their voices aren’t super obvious. In fact, Pratt seems to be doing his best Jack Black impersonation.
These two are the core of the story, but they are accompanied by the magicked form of their father… or at least… his legs. Cue the film’s sense of humour, which is weighted heavily into slapstick comedy. Like a lot of Disney properties, their father’s legs are a wonderful silent character with great animation betraying personality and motivations. Alongside, is the boys’ mother, a rough-and-ready woman who is tougher than all of them.
The boys’ quest is to find a magical artefact that might fully restore their father’s temporary image. The magic that was meant to return him to them only lasts a day, so time is of the essence. Their quest is perilous and full of delightful action sequences and character moments that bring the movie to a emotionally satisfying conclusion. That sentence, is not applicable to many films these days! It should not be understated. Even some of Pixar’s best features, Up and Wall-E for example, have pacing issues; they start out sombre and mellow, and by the end of them they are frenetic chase sequences. Not for Onward. In fact, this new film has a real sense of build-up and expert pacing.
There’s also a distinct attention from Pixar with current trends. Onward is tapping into a relatively recent explosion in geek culture: Dungeons & Dragons, not just having approximations of the game itself involved, but actually involving named monsters from the table-top role playing game.
It is obvious, but it should be stated anyway, that Onward is a gorgeous looking movie. Pixar really are masters at their craft, not just the beautiful elemental and particle effects, but also in how characters move; the subtle movements as well as the cartoonish. There is so much life and detail pushed into every scene. It has a very different mood to regular Pixar films; at times having designs or uses of colour more suited to a Laika Studios animation, some gothic and even scary visuals, mixed with more natural landscapes and colour palettes like Brave.
If there is anything negative to say about the film, is only that it is a tried-and-true piece of storytelling. As exceptionally executed as it is, there isn’t anything outwardly surprising in what it does. You aren’t going to have your mind blown by the events or the characters. But the story isn’t here to rock the boat, prove a point, or support an agenda; it is just a straight forward story with some delightful characters and exciting moments. Oh, and of course, emotional moments. Pixar are experts in those, too.
But despite this shortcoming, honestly can it be a shortcoming? We have so many films now that need twists and turns, subversions and agendas. What happened to just writing good fun?
Onward is a great little adventure.
Additional Marshmallows: As good as the film is, you will have to endure the worst “Pixar” animated short before the movie. “Pixar”, because it isn’t Pixar; it is a silent The Simpsons short, and not even a very good one. Basically Disney flaunting their new acquisitions after buying 20th Century Fox: “Part of the Disney family!”
Disney… shut up. Pixar’s short animations are often the best part of these releases, and allow for great minds to create unique stories… This is an insult.