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  • Jonny Diaz

Review: Onward


Onward, the 22nd feature film from Pixar, finds the venerable animation studio at something of a crossroads. After an initial run of groundbreaking films that dominated popular culture and reshaped the animation landscape, the past decade has seen Pixar--like many of its studio brethren--largely caught in a rut of sequels and franchises. As a fan of animation in general and Pixar in particular, it has been disheartening to see what was once the premier American home for fresh and inventive storytelling on a big-budget, universally accessible scale fall into the same patterns as its competitors. Sure, there have been attempts to escape the trend, and Pixar remains capable of generating something truly special now and again (Inside Out and Coco are two recent highlights, both among the best films of their respective years), but the majority of their output for the past decade has been largely uninspired--if still, at worst, technically impressive and narratively proficient.  Enter Onward, a multi-genre mashup that sees Pixar straining to dip back into the well of past inspiration to reestablish itself as a stable for original, innovative storytelling. Set in a hybrid of modern suburbia and Dungeons-and-Dragons-esque fantasy, Onward follows two elf brothers: the younger and more self-conscious Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) and his older brother, the overenthusiastic Barley (Chris Pratt), who is obsessed with rediscovering the magic of the past. On Ian’s 16th birthday, the boys’ mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) presents them with a gift from their long-deceased father: a wizard’s staff and a magic spell that will bring him back to life for 24 hours. When the spell goes wrong, the boys are left with only their dad’s lower half, and embark on a quest to face the legendary Manticore (Octavia Spencer) and bring back the rest of their father while they still have time to spend with him.  The film’s opening prologue describes a world that was once filled with wonder, but that over time has lost the magic that made it special. If you close your eyes and just listen to the narration, it could easily be about Pixar itself, and the metatextual nature of the film doesn’t stop there. Over the course of Ian and Barley’s quest (and their mother’s parallel journey alongside the Manticore), director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) relies on tried-and-true Pixar tricks to moderate success. Despite being superficially similar to something like Shrek, the filmmakers eschew easy jokes about technology or pop culture that would’ve instantly become dated. Instead, Onward plays with well-established genre tropes, pulling from buddy comedies, road trip films, and fantasy epics to construct its narrative. It combines those elements with the emotional tricks we’ve come to expect from Pixar--an emphasis on personal growth, loss, and familial relationships that achieves genuine emotional payoffs. Although the plotline is fairly predictable, the story beats are executed with enough panache that they remain effective. And the quality of the animation, as always, is sublime. The world is richly designed, with the density of detail and visual gags that we’ve come to expect from Pixar, and although I found the character designs overall to be somewhat underwhelming, there is one creature that ranks among the finest creations they’ve ever unleashed.  In some ways, Pixar have become the victims of their own success. From any other animation studio, this might feel like a triumph, but they’ve set the bar so high that anything less than a masterpiece feels like a disappointment--which is probably an unfair standard to hold them to. Still, Onward is a perfectly fun time at the movies, and hopefully it represents a necessary course correction towards more original storytelling.


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