Onward review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Pixar pulls off yet another fine picture showcasing what they do best in their masterworks of animation: a detailed sense of worldbuilding with a movingly emotional story behind it. Considering their previous pictures of late, Onward may be their most ambitious picture to date, blending a suburban fantasy with an adventure of loss and family that is anything but stock. One more bit of proof that the biggest animation studio is still striving for the best out of the medium.
Onward takes place in a fantasy world of magic. Or at least it used to be. Magic has all but vanished not because of some dark force of evil but due to the industrialization of their world. Unless you consider industrialization the real enemy of this picture, which it kinda is and is certainly worthy of a much lengthier piece that can’t fit into this review. At any rate, elves and trolls now live in the suburbs.
There are two young elves we follow. Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) is a nervous outsider, too tense to complete his driving test on his 16th birthday. His older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) is the exact opposite as a D&D playing rebel with an eccentric love for fantasy, more properly observed in this world as historical fantasy. They live with their active single mom who has a nosey cop for a boyfriend. Their father passed away when the two brothers were very young and the loss still weighs a bit on them.
But then something amazing happens. Magic seems to return to their world when the brothers discover dad left behind a magical staff and crystal that can bring their father back from the dead for one day. The two can finally get some closure especially since Ian never fully met his father and Barley only has a handful of memories about him. But when the crystal breaks mid-spell and they only have a lower half of their father, they set out on a quest to recover another crystal in time to speak with their father.
While there’s comfy ease for turning this into a road-trip buddy picture, Pixar has remarkable restraint when it comes to kind of adventure. There are a lot urban fantasy gags that could’ve crowded the screen and overtaken the story, from the unicorns that act like feral cats of the neighborhood to centaurs cops that hardly run in their unhealthy modern lifestyle. At one point, the film is nearly hijacked by the hijinks of a punk fairy gang that prefers more to ride motorcycles than use their wings to fly. For the most part, however, the emotional story is never lost. All the absurdity feels perfectly placed as the color for the world rather than the world itself.
The dynamic between Ian and Barley is intriguing not just for the opposites attract chemistry. They have major reasons for wanting to see their dad for some closure which reveals more clearly over the course of the film. One of the most unexpected moments of tear-jerking features the mostly bold Barley revealing that his last memory of his father was not the best, remarking how he couldn’t bring himself to see his dad on life support. That’s a real pain of regret in a loss that I honestly didn’t expect out of such a picture, even for one as adultly mindful as a Pixar production. It’s also moving to see Ian recognize this side of his brother and realize how much he can learn from his family.
Though the B plot of their mom Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) teaming up with the aged manticore Corey (Octavia Spencer) doesn’t feel as touching, it’s still fun to see a story of older women taking charge and breaking out of their shells on their own road trip. They also seem to have the most action scenes as well. So if you ever wanted to see a pear-shaped mom wielding a magic sword and fighting a dragon, your film has arrived.
Onward resonates so well for being a funny and frenetic fantasy adventure, sure, but for also being daring enough to present a rather adult story. Very few animated with dead parents ever dares to question how hard that loss can be, especially when it’s at such a young age and from the disease. Where other animated films hide from the somber, Pixar triumphantly pursues the rockier and more exciting road of animated entertainment.