By Kevin Hoskinson
The latest film from Pixar feels like a traditional offering from the studio, but it also sees the animation juggernaut try something a bit different. It hits all of the emotional buttons they are known for, all while exploring a world they have never ventured into before.
The movie imagines a world where the world of fantasy has always existed. Mythical creatures like orcs, elves, centaurs, unicorns, and fairies are all real. Magic used to be a part of their lives until technology overcame it, and there was no longer a need for it. Now they live in a world very close to our own, a world reliant on modern tech and less so on the ways of old.
Tom Holland and Chris Pratt play elf brothers Ian and Barley. Ian is a shy, awkward teenager who is lacking in self-confidence, and Barley, on an extended break from school, is obsessed with history and role-playing games. They live with their mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), in the city of New Mushroomton.
On Ian’s 16th birthday, Laurel gives the boys a gift from their late father, Wilden. It’s a magical staff with a spell that promises to bring their father back for one day. Like any good adventure story, things don’t go exactly as planned. They are forced to go on a quest that is filled with cryptic maps, unspeakable dangers, and life-changing discoveries, all in the hopes of seeing their father one last time.
Pixar is one of Disney’s saving graces, and they are known for thinking out of the box. Even so, Onward felt like a risky move for the studio. They have taken a look at what toys do when we are not around (Toy Story), how our emotions work (Inside Out), and what happens after we die (Coco). From the trailers alone, Onward feels like a pretty cookie-cutter story set in a fantastical world, and truth be told, it kind of is.
Director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) based the story on his own life experience. His father passed away before he was born, and he created the premise around that. In one of the film’s more moving scenes, Ian plays a cassette tape that contains his father’s voice. He starts a dialogue with it, and it’s very affecting. It’s a deeply personal moment and doesn’t seem manufactured. Tom Holland delivers the performance, but it was orchestrated by someone close to the material.
Chris Pratt and Tom Holland make a great team. The way they bounce lines off each other feels organic, and their chemistry feels real. They bicker constantly, and Ian feels embarrassed by his older brother, but by the end of the film, they each learn a lot about the other. Julia Louis-Dreyfus brings a lot of warmth and motherly woes to the role of Laurel. She teams up with the once-mighty Manticore (voiced by Octavia Spencer) to find her boys. If this movie were purely about them, it still would have worked; they are hilarious.
Onward is a beautiful film. The animation is stunning, and the world is massively entertaining to experience. It isn’t a great movie, but it’s a really good one. As far as the story goes, it’s pretty straightforward and doesn’t contain many surprises. It does pack an emotional punch, though, and it works because if it’s core themes. At its heart, it’s about family and learning to let go of the past, and that’s something everybody can relate to.
Review: 7.5 out of 10
Onward is available on Disney+ and VOD.
Kevin Hoskinson is a writer with a deep-seeded love for movies, comic books, television and the paranormal. From humble beginnings working the box office at his local movie theater, he’s worked his way to becoming a humble family man and professional bug exterminator. Growing up, he wanted to become an astronaut, a Ghostbuster, a dinosaur, and a Disney animator before he found his passion for writing as a teen. He studied film at Los Angeles Valley College with an emphasis on screenwriting and film criticism. He currently lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and two kids. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter @Kevin_Hoskinson, and Instagram @kevinhoskinson.