Director: Dan Scanlon
Cast: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Synopsis: Set in a suburban fantasy world, two teenage elf brothers embark on a quest to discover if there is still magic out there.
Genre: Animation, Adventure, Comedy
MPAA Rating: PG (for action/peril and some mild thematic elements)
Runtime: 1 hr 42 min
Release Date: March 6, 2020
It's not easy being a teenager. It's even less easy when you have a fractured family, as is the case for Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt), whose father died before Ian was born and when Barley was very young. Beyond that, the two brothers live in a modern fantasy world where the fantasy itself has died out--leaving mythical creatures but with the magic largely extinct due to technological advances over the years. It leaves a unique, but disconcerting society that has forgotten who they are, and where they've come from. When Ian and Barley are suddenly gifted the opportunity to bring their father back through a magical spell for 24 hours, they embark on a journey that ends up having more in store than they could've imagined.
Onward is a refreshing animated comedy-drama for a series of reasons. Not only is it just the second original Pixar film in the last four years, but it features a unique, creative world in stuffing mythical creatures into modern life. The setting itself isn't just different--the creatures and people themselves act out of turn. Centaurs drive cars instead of walking or running, small dragons are kept as house pets, and as previously mentioned, magic itself has largely gone out of practice in favor of modern conveniences. It's a simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar world, infusing constant cognitive dissonance in viewers, yet one that remains thoroughly enjoyable to experience.
But the film does another important thing. It focuses on a subject and theme rarely discussed in film, especially in the animated genre--and that's brotherhood. Ian is a young teen who's battling insecurity in addition to the constant inner turmoil over having never met his father. Beyond that, his relationship with his brother Barley isn't exactly the strongest. He's frequently embarrassed by him, questioning his decisions, doubting his ideas, and doesn't much like spending time with him. Yet, Barley's just as much determined to resurrect his father as much as Ian, since Barley had a chance to see his ill father one last time but turned it down from fear (reminiscent of Star Lord with his mother in the opening scene of Guardians of the Galaxy). So with each having their own motivations, the two brothers go on the journey to fully resurrect their father (having accidentally only brought back half of him). As one might expect, their journey leads to more than the desire/goal; it leads to self-discovery and change in each of them. And that's the true beauty of this film--it celebrates the inseparable bond between brothers, even in the midst of the constant visual reminder of not having a father and missing an element in their lives. And the film's title, which is referenced several times in the film itself, is a metaphor for leaving the grieving period and eventually having to move on after a loss. It's a coming of age story in a different vein, rejecting the all-too-common romantic element and instead focusing on the role of a father and what it means to fulfill that role. It's touching, emotionally compelling, and relevant especially in today's society filled with broken households.
The technical aspects are strong as well (this is a Pixar film after all). The cinematography, especially the lighting, is eye popping and the setting is filled with incredible detail, richness, and color to bring this new world to vivid life. It doesn't reach the levels of some of the beauty created in Coco, Pixar's other original film in the last 4 years, but the work done here is still extravagant and breathtaking at times.
Ultimately though, it's Onward's refreshing, emotionally affecting story and character work that allows it to succeed. The comedic moments are few and far between, and aren't as funny or clever as previous Pixar entries, but it's not a deal breaker, since the characters themselves remain endearing and the heart of the film still shines through to the very tear jerking end. If you're looking for an original, heartfelt, and inwardly and outwardly beautiful story, look no further than Onward.
Written by Anthony Watkins, March 13, 2020