The name alone - PIXAR - exudes a certain level of high-quality, creativity and innovation that few other brands have ever achieved. But with high expectations come greater risk of letdown, and while "Onward" sure looks pretty, it feels more like a side-step than a leap forward for the high-powered animation studio.
There's a lot to like in "Onward." Let's get that out of the way first. From the crisp and mesmerizing animation, to the top-notch voice talent, to some of its story elements, "Onward" is sure to please kiddies...I would never deny it that. But when held up to other instant CLASSIC Pixar films of the past - "Toy Story," "WALL-E," "Inside Out," - this one would rank in the bottom half if you were to list out all 22 Pixar films to date. Is this better than, say, "Cars 2" or "The Good Dinosaur"? You betcha. But even though "Toy Story"-status may be setting the bar a bit too high for any new film, "Onward" just feels unremarkable at best, forgettable at worst.
There's magic in the idea of "Onward" though. It feels VERY Pixar-esque in that it imagines a world and an eco-system with an incredible amount of detail and creativity, in the same way that "A Bugs Life" or "Cars" or "Toy Story" did. In "Onward," we're shown a world full of magical creatures - think unicorns, fairies, centaurs and elves - but its a world where technological advances have all but sucked this universe dry of any and all wonderment. Centaurs for example - the half-man, half-horse creatures of fantasy - drive cars instead of galloping around. Unicorns are now feral, and scavenge through garbage cans and dumpsters. Fairies don't use their wings much, and pretty much nobody remembers the world of magic that once was.
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That's where brothers Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) come in. Older brother Barley is still obsessed with magic, but it's Ian that seems to have the knack for it. Being Pixar, the themes are not "dumbed-down" for children, and these boys both still live with the sorrow and loss associated with their dead father, a magic-man if there ever was one. Living with their mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), they discover a spell that can bring their dad back just for one day, but a mishap only brings back their father from the waist down...they go on an adventure - with their half-dad in tow - to track down a magical crystal that will power the rest of the spell and bring their dad back, but they need to do so quickly because the 24-hour window is fading fast.
While it's admirable that "Onward" features a brother-relationship (some are calling this "Frozen for boys") as its emotional core, it also ponders some real adult themes. What would you do, what would you say, if you could bring back a loved one for only a short time? As we would expect, the movie delivers some strong messages about being mindful of who you do have and how you do spend your time, instead of dwelling on what you don't have. In a world full of connectivity and social media, we are as disconnected as ever. Ian and Barley learn and grow, and some of this hits the mark.
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Unfortunately, much of it doesn't. This is really an odd film when you think about it, and a bit creepy that these boys are hanging out with a pair of legs. Where the heavier themes land, the surface-level plot is suspect, with the brothers coming up with just the right spells at just the right time to get them out of trouble time and time again. There's several side-characters, none of whom feel all that fleshed-out or even all that interesting (of note, a character being credited as the first-ever openly LGBTQ character, voiced by Lena Waithe, appears in one scene). The movie is a bit too weird to connect with, so in a strange way, you are made aware of the movie's motives and themes and acknowledge their existence, without ever being affected by them.
"Onward" might be passable if it didn't have the Pixar brand attached to it, but frankly we deserve more when entering into a Pixar film. The expectation is that their movies will continue to take animation and family storytelling upwards, but "Onward" doesn't move the needle as much as it should.
(See below: My exclusive interview with "Onward" co-writer and director, and Clawson, MI native, Dan Scanlon).
Genre: Animation, Adventure, Comedy.
Run Time: 1 hour and 42 minutes.
Starring (voices of): Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Lena Waithe, Ali Wong, Tracey Ullman.
Co-Written and Directed by Dan Scanlon ("Monsters University").
"Onward" is in theaters on Friday, March 6th, 2020.
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