Over the last half-decade, Pixar has strayed a bit from its creative roots. For the first time in its over 25 years, the production company once known for churning out visionary works and rich intellectual property fell into a sequel slump. Instead of crafting new, exciting worlds and stories, Pixar spent more time expanding the ones we already knew.
Of the last five films released by the studio, just one – 2017’s stellar “Coco” – gave viewers something entirely new. That’s not to say any of the sequels were bad by any stretch – they were all critical and commercial successes. But without new worlds to discover, something just wasn’t the same.
Now, to kickoff the new decade, Pixar is returning to form with two entirely new adventures, and “Onward” is leading the way. While it may not diverge far from a typical fantasy quest, that patented Pixar magic is once again in full effect, elevating “Onward” to new heights.
“Onward” follows Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland), a socially awkward and introverted elf, and his brash and extremely nerdy brother Barley (Chris Pratt) as they navigate a fantasy world where dragons are pets and unicorns are as common as racoons. The only catch is that technological advances have all but replaced the magical powers that used to be so coveted.
On Ian’s 16th birthday, their mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gifts the boys with a mysterious gift from their deceased father. It turns out their dad was trained in the ancient magic, and now he has bequeathed his wizard staff to his sons, along with a spell that will bring him back for 24 hours. But when things go wrong during the incantation, only half of Ian and Barley’s father returns, leaving a wandering pair of legs unable to see, hear or speak.
Now, with only 24 hours until their father is gone for good, Ian and Barley must embrace the magic of years past and embark on a quest to bring back the rest of their father before time runs out.
As most Pixar movies tend to, “Onward” will certainly pull at every heartstring. On the surface, it may look like a childish fantastical quest, but in reality, it tackles some of the heaviest themes the studio has ever dared to touch. At its core, “Onward” attempts to answer one question: How far would you go for one more day?
Whether you’re like Barley, who only has a handful of fleeting memories of his late father, including never getting to say goodbye, or like Ian, who never even got the chance to meet his dad, that question is not an unfamiliar one. Anyone who’s ever experienced loss has wondered the same thing. Dead parents are nothing new to Disney movies – nearly every princess or lead has suffered the same orphaned fate – but “Onward” takes the idea further than ever before, handling it in a way that’s both entertaining and profound. With shades of “Field of Dreams” or “About Time,” “Onward” has immediately cemented itself in the go-to Father-Son movie pantheon.
Part of the reason the story works so well is due to the film’s impeccable casting. While Holland and Pratt may never pass for brothers in any live-action adventure, their fraternal bond works perfectly in animation. On top of the main duo, supporting roles by Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Lena Waithe and Ali Wong only add to the fun.
Despite everything it has working in its favor, “Onward” still runs into a bit of trouble, particularly during its middle act. While the first act is filled with wonder, establishing the finely-crafted details of the magical world, the middle feels fairly formulaic as Ian and Barley embark on their quest. During this stretch the duo consistently runs into commonplace obstacles delaying their search for the key to bringing their father back.
However, it all comes together in the third and final act, effectively erasing any critiques of a mid-movie drag. Without veering too far into spoiler territory, it’s safe to say the finale is overflowing with long-awaited payoffs and a heavy hit straight to the feels.
While it may not be top-tier Pixar, falling somewhere in the middle, “Onward” hits all of the required marks for success – from the trademark stunning animation to the instantly likable characters, and of course, its deeply moving emotional measures.
Star Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Charlotte, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.