Pixar, and its parent company Disney, has developed a reputation of crafting films with vibrant, original worlds in recent years, and pairing them with heartfelt, thoughtful stories. The company’s most recent project adheres to this newfound tradition, yet with a story that doesn’t quite match the quality of its previous screenplays.
The setting of Onward is New Mushroomton, a metropolis where the contemporary and fantasy worlds collide. The city is home to numerous anthropomorphic creatures, including elves, centaurs, cyclopes, mermaids and pixies, who all use electronic and internal-combustion technology – rather than the magic of their ancestors – as liberally as we humans do. Residing in the outer suburbs of this very city are elven brothers Barley (Chris Pratt) and Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), the latter of whom has just turned sixteen.
To mark the occasion, Ian is gifted with a wizard’s staff that belonged to his late father, along with a magical gem, and a spell which promises to bring him back to life – but only for a single day. Ian casts the spell, yet succeeds only in restoring the lower half of his father’s body and destroying said gem. Barley then proposes that he and Ian embark upon a quest to find an identical gem, and cast the spell once more to create a full-bodied apparition of their Dad.
Onward is the latest feature-length picture from Pixar Animation Studios, a firm which is no stranger to the fantasy genre; but this film does represent Pixar’s first foray into a realm of fantasy most people are familiar with – the medieval kind. Although this might seem like stale material, screenwriters Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley and Keith Bunin have crafted a world where the genre’s tropes are paired with imaginative, clever ideas, thereby making the settings seem fresh.
Even so, one senses the screenwriters have demonstrated only a smidgeon of their imagination in Onward and could have been far more creative, or possibly explored the world further – something that could easily be done via montage, a la the opening of Disney’s Zootopia. And yet, if the film were to do that, Onward would wrongly be robbed of its core purpose: to examine the complex bond that is shared between siblings.
Remove the fantasy elements of Onward and what’s left is a thoughtful, heart-warming narrative about two brothers with a tenuous relationship. As they traverse the grimy suburbia, dense forests, lush plains and rocky mountainsides, elves Ian and Barley learn more about each other than they do about magic, their surroundings or even their own father. These touching moments are unfortunately upset by the conflict between the siblings, which becomes rather contrived and cliched at certain moments.
Ian and Barley aren’t the only protagonists that bond – also contained within Onward is a subplot about female empowerment that proves equally entertaining, if not more so. This journey sees mother Laurel Lightfoot (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) paired with the once-fabled, now-feeble Manticore, or “Corey” (Octavia Spencer) as they attempt to stop the brothers on their perilous travels. Pleasingly, Laurel and Corey have a fun dynamic that’s rife with amusing turns, and devoid of the hackneyed disagreements that the brothers partake in.
Another element of the screenplay to appreciate is the ingenious usage of foreshadowing to develop both the plot and the characters. Throughout Onward, there are countless throwaway lines or actions that seem irrelevant to proceedings, yet serve an ulterior purpose in later moments of the film (and which deserve not to be spoilt). Additionally, there’s a smart moral within the story about nostalgia, and the benefits (and pitfalls) that spur from it.
There are plenty of other compliments that can be afforded to Onward. The animation is bright, colourful and flawlessly rendered, as per usual for a Pixar feature; there are excellent performances from the entire voice-cast, particularly the delightful Pratt; and the epic soundtrack from composers Mychael and Jeff Danna is a perfect accompaniment to the visuals, containing both orchestral suites and entertaining power ballads.
All of these strengths lead this reviewer to believe that Pixar may well turn Onward into a franchise. As mentioned above, it feels as though only the smallest part of New Mushroomton and its surrounds has been explored in the film, and there is a greater story to be told – much like another picture made by the studio, Inside Out. Whether such a franchise will eventuate all depends on how much acclaim this film receives in a post-pandemic world; here’s sorely hoping that praise is found.
Even with the occasional grievance, Onward is a compelling picture and remains one of the brighter animated offerings from a studio that rarely does wrong. Containing a resonant story, clever subversions of the fantasy genre and, of course, the usual Pixar hallmarks, there’s no shortage of delights in this picture.