I might not have been sold on this one based on the trailer alone, but I sure changed my tune after seeing it in theaters!
Taking place in a once magical world where said magic has now been passed over for the convenience of present day technologies and lifestyles, Onward sees brothers Ian and Barley Lightfoot (Tom Holland and Chris Pratt respectively), as they set out on a quest to revive their late father for one last day among the living, but with a catch: their first attempt to do so backfired and only brought back the bottom half of good ol’ Dad, leaving his top half nowhere to be found! Now, with the clock ticking and the magic needed to finish the spell and bring their father back to life waning, Ian and Barley must embark on an adventure of a lifetime filled to the brim with feats of strength, danger and magic as well as handful of new and — to Ian in particular — terrifying experiences that may or may not lead to the brothers’ demise at the hands of a curse that they do not even realize they are unleashing. Cue the Dungeon & Dragon references.
For as long as Pixar has been in the animation game, most of their films from the near perfect to the perfectly average have always been stacked against one another in comparison to one another, meaning that the most “meh” Pixar film will almost always be better than anything else on the market but when put up against its own brethren, might look a little less than it actually is. For example, Monsters University or The Good Dinosaur are perfectly acceptable films in every sense of the word, but when stacked against the Toy Story films, Wall-E or Coco, their stock value tends to go down a bit, not necessarily due to the movie’s quality on its own, but due to the quality of the films surrounding it. Now there are definitely worse ways to judge a film, specifically a Pixar joint, and regardless of the endless debate as to what is the best and worst Pixar entry, I’m happy to report that Onward is able to transcend the mediocre films in Pixar’s repertoire even if it doesn’t exactly reach the highest of heights that the best of the bunch sit at, and honestly, I wouldn’t have this film any other way.
From the truly fantastical aspect of the world our characters inhibit, to the tried and true coming of age story Ian faces, to the familial themes running throughout, Onward is able to spin a lot of plates at the same time while simultaneously building a living, breathing world ripped straight out of a Lord of the Rings novel, just with less bloodshed and more charm and humor. The script does a pretty bang-up job of doing all of its various aspects justice by giving Ian, Barley, their mom, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and even the now domesticated manticore of legend, Corey (Octavia Spencer), something to work with on an adventurous, personal and emotional level, while still wowing with fun and clever set pieces that utilize the inherent wonder of this magical world to the fullest. I highly enjoyed my time living amongst the trolls and fairies and centaurs (oh my!), and it’s all on the filmmakers for handling the world building near perfectly, even if at times they do so at the cost of a slightly less meaty story.
With that being said, my main gripes with Onward aren’t necessarily negative in the sense that there’s something “wrong” with the film, far from it actually, but from the idea that there could have been more. For the most part, the first half to two thirds of the film don’t really have this issue; there’s enough going on visually and thematically to entertain at a base level, doling out excitement and fun at a steady pace, but by the time the third act rolls around, the carefully laid threads the filmmakers have placed down throughout the film wrap up either too quickly, or are simply resolved in a less than deserving way. I won’t spoil anything here, but to refer back to the Pixar conundrum of quality, I expected a bit more layering and subtleness to some of these final scenes that either wasn’t there or felt rushed in a way that is at odds with what Pixar is known for, especially when the studio usually savors and stretches out these beats to the perfect moment in the perfect way. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing and still keeps the film above many others, but it does come off as strangely lesser in the grand Pixar lexicon.
Although it might not feel as full and layered in certain areas of the script as I would have liked (a slightly longer runtime might have sufficed), the world building, character work, quickly paced, genuinely funny and endearing plot as well as some fantasy-tinged visual effects that just look plain cool, all make Onward more of an entertaining adventure film rather than the customary all-in-one, fully fleshed out, emotional rollercoaster of a ride that Pixar is known for (although there’s a dash of that in there too). Throw in some better than expected voice acting from Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, and some exciting Dungeon & Dragons-esque set pieces, and you have a film that might not be at the top of the Pixar “Best Of” list, but definitely sits as one of the most unique.