The computer animation wizards over at Pixar have delivered no shortage of imaginative worlds for audiences to plunder over the years, and their newest playground in Onward happens to be one of their most conceptual landscapes yet, while still rooted in the type of deep, personal narrative fans of the studio have come to expect from the makers of Toy Story and Inside Out.
Pixar films have long explored “secret worlds” within our familiar one, from the hidden lives of toys and bugs, to the more external conflicts of comic book superheroes and monsters in our closets. In Onward, director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) presents a world where the high fantasy tropes and creatures of Dungeons & Dragons and The Lord of the Rings exist in a more modern society, where the conveniences of electricity, indoor plumbing, and smartphones have all but eliminated any need for the magic and sorcery of a bygone era.
There are no humans in Onward, but there are plenty of elves, gnomes, centaurs, trolls, and many more creatures coexisting in the suburban New Mushroomton, where we meet two elvish brothers who couldn’t be more different. Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) just turned 16, and he’s far more timid and reserved compared to his older teenage brother Barley (Chris Pratt), who doesn’t appear to fear anything. One thing the boys do have in common, though, is how much they miss their late father, who passed away right before Ian was born.
Though the world of Onward has been devoid of magic for apparently decades, if not centuries, Ian and Barley discover that one of their father’s possessions, an old wizard’s staff, could be a remnant of the past with just enough magic to bring their father back to life for only one day, so Ian can finally meet his own father. Thus, the boys embark on a road trip “quest” in order to find what they need to finish the spell, encountering all sorts of dangers and fun surprises layered within this vibrant, exciting world dreamed up by Scanlon and his fellow co-screenwriters Jason Headley and Keith Bunin.
In some ways, Onward is one big cauldron of familiar Pixar clichés. We have two mismatched characters going on a journey (Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Inside Out), the familial drama of lost parenthood (The Good Dinosaur, Coco), and even body-changing humor within a fantasy setting (Brave). But in other respects, Onward has its own unique treasures, specifically in its grandiose, larger-than-life energy and swelling score by Mychael Danna and Jeff Danna, as opposed to the more intimate, sometimes even laid-back mania of previous Pixar films.
That said, Onward has a surprisingly small cast compared to similar Disney sandboxes like Zootopia. There are only a handful of characters given time to shine, including the boys’ mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), who at one point gets to team up with a once-fearsome manticore (Octavia Spencer) on a mini-adventure of their own. Aside from a few cop characters voiced by Mel Rodriguez, Ali Wong, and Lena Waithe, the film mostly keeps its attention fixed squarely on the two leads.
Onward isn’t the funniest Pixar movie, nor does it have the best action. It’s not even the most visually fantastical in its setting. It does, however, contain a strong balance of the three, and its heart-wrenching message about cherishing the people who raise you completely lands and rivals the best tearjerking moments of Pixar’s canon, thanks in no small part to how powerfully expressive the characters themselves are. What’s even more impressive is how engaging the film continues to be into the third act, which is an infamous pitfall for many Pixar films, which have their big dramatic moment close to the end before recklessly sprinting to the climax. Onward feels like a more natural progression, where not a moment of emotional catharsis is wasted before its final, somewhat unexpected conclusion.
This is Pixar at its finest, when the entire family can enjoy the entire film on almost entirely the same level. Kids will have a great time marveling at these characters and the quirky world they inhabit, while adults will revel in the tight writing and poignant story. And yes, everyone will also be laughing together as kids learn a tough, but essential lesson about appreciating the people in their lives who are always there, even when we don’t want them to be, and even when they’re as unconventional as a house made of mushrooms. Onward also asks some welcome questions about what it means to say goodbye to the ones we’ve lost and how to resolve deep-seated childhood regrets and fears in a healthy, productive way, without ever going too far into the unreliable mechanics of a world where magic can easily become a crutch for the narrative.
Instead, the magic in Onward is always related back to the essentials of wonderful character writing. Our ability to get things done and rise above our low self-esteem can be realized through basic life lessons, which the film simplistically lays out through the form of visual aids, like a “to-do list” that is often used for both comedic and dramatic effect. It might be easy for some to lambast the film for being so overt in its messaging, but the success of this story lies precisely in how clear and focused it is, and how efficiently it presents its point to all ages, without ever being just a hair too obvious.
For animation fans, families, and general moviegoers in search of original stories, Onward isn’t a magic trick. It does the hard work needed to captivate audiences, while also engaging them with thoughtful and resonant notions. If the film’s title is a sign of what’s to come for Pixar as they release more inventive projects in lieu of franchises and sequels, then we can certainly say that Onward moves in the right direction.