Released: 26th March
Seen: 21st March (Advance Screening Weekend)
Onward might go down as one of the unluckiest movies in recent Disney history since its release just happened to fall when the coronavirus pandemic basically shut down everything, including most theatres. Normally a Pixar film is basically guaranteed to make 100 million in the first week, get its budget covered in the second week and be on the way to one of the highest grossing films of the year. That’s now not happening, thanks to corona. If you want to be in genuine shock at just how suddenly this hit, go look at the box office of Onward. Onward is still technically the top grossing film in America and yet it’s barely cracking a thousand bucks a theatre. I bring this up because it explains why they made a pivot and released this one straight to VOD in the states and why it’ll be on Disney+ soon. So now the question becomes “Is this film worth a slightly higher than normal rental price to stream at home” and honestly? Yeah, because it’s a pretty great film.
Onward is set in a land that used to be full of magic, but once the people discovered that technology was easier to operate than magic everything slowly changed. Focussing on the Lightfoot family of elves and taking place on Ian Lightfoot’s (Tom Holland) 16th birthday. As part of his birthday, Ian and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) are handed a gift that their mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) was asked to keep aside until the boys were 16. She was asked this by Ian and Barley’s late father who passed away before Ian was born and the present he left them was a magical staff. When the staff is combined with a rare gem and a spell (both of which are included in the gift) the boys can perform a visitation spell, allowing them to have one more day with their father. Ian ends up being the only one able to make the spell work, but something goes wrong in the casting and the only part of their father that returns is his legs. Now the boys, along with their father’s legs, must go off on a quest in order to find another rare gem and try the spell again before the day runs out and they can never see their father again.
Right from the minute we meet our main characters, they instantly grab hold of your heart and don’t let go. Ian and Barley, as characters, have the kind of instant brotherly back and forth that anyone who has an older or younger brother will instantly recognise. There’s a real charm and warmth to the two of them and that basically is what holds the entire film together, no matter what else gets thrown onto it. Even when we have little detours away from the central quest, it’s the key relationship between Ian and Barley that manages to make the film work, giving it a lot more beyond the beautiful visuals.
I would probably put the visuals of this movie up on the higher end of Pixar’s work, the landscapes and the designs for everyone are just captivating and you can really see where a lot of old world architecture was gentrified when these people learned about technology. It’s a great mix of the fantastic and the mundane that makes the world the story takes place in feel alive and there’s only a few weird tonal moments that feel like they played with the design for an effect that wouldn’t work if they stuck to the internal logic they created (like an ancient castle that’s in the middle of nowhere but is also a major restaurant that’s full of people, kind of pulled me out of it for a moment). Plus there’s some specific architecture that is used really well during the climax to help create the final obstacle.
The clever thing about the story is that it’s structured in such a way that they don’t need a villain, there is no big baddy to worry about, it’s two boys on a quest and the conflict comes from the difficulty of the situation. This really lets us just focus all our energy on this great little relationship, one that I don’t think we get to see that often in animation. I went and saw this with my younger brother and trust me, if you have a younger or older brother then this is going to resonate because I swear I saw so much of me and my own brother in Ian and Barley (this means this is the only way I will ever be able to compare myself to Chris Pratt… and now I’m sad). It’s a very real feeling relationship, including the pointless fights or trying to teach each other something cool or even being willing to put yourself in harm’s way just to help them. One particular moment that was all too real had Barley basically lying to Ian in order to make sure Ian was safe and… yeah, yeah that rang true.
There are a few things that don’t quite work for me, everything involving Colt AKA the new boyfriend of the mother really just felt meaningless and didn’t have any real payoff. They definitely try to have the boys bond over their dislike of their mom’s new boyfriend but there’s never any reason to dislike him beyond him being new, and that dislike is never dealt with. Just one moment where Colt covered for them to show he’s on their side would’ve been nice. Also I naturally have to talk about the well publicised gay character Specter (Lena Waithe) who is in exactly one scene of the film and we know she’s gay because she states she has a girlfriend. I’m very fine with this because at least it’s something, but could Disney maybe not try to earn brownie points by advertising their side characters so much? Because it ends up feeling like a letdown when their gayness is relegated to a single moment. Plus it’s a moment that’s easily removed (and has been removed in certain dubs of the film) so maybe next time, have some actual balls and do it properly. Hell, they could’ve solved both my problems and just had Specter be the new girlfriend of their mother, that would’ve actually been exciting and made a difference.
In general, Onward is one of the really good Pixar movies, certainly one of their better recent efforts. It’s a testament to how good this company is at making movies that I wouldn’t put this film in the top 10 of their work, but it’s certainly worth a look. It’s a charming film with a lot of great jokes and some exciting characters that will put a big grin on your face, when it’s not ripping your heart out because it’s Pixar and devastating emotion is just what they do. Check this one out however you can, it’s worth a moment of your time.