Pixar’s Onward has one of the more unique premises in the animation studio’s history. While Pixar has proven to be one of the world’s most consistent sources of making excellent movies – animated or otherwise – most of their concepts can be summed up in one brief word: toys, cars, fish, etc. But in the case of Onward, we have a high fantasy world in the vein of Tolkien or Dungeons & Dragons, but placed in a contemporary suburban setting. With this concept, Onward takes the premise of a fantasy adventure, and turns it into a kind of road trip buddy movie. The end result is one of Pixar’s finer accomplishments of recent years. One that fits nicely into the studio’s acclaimed repertoire of entertaining and touching films.
The world of Onward is littered with the usual races of high fantasy: elves, goblins, trolls, dragons, and so on. But in this world’s history, as the art of magic proved hard to master, it eventually went by the wayside in favor of the accessibility of technology. So the present day of this world isn’t too dissimilar from our own, save for the fact that we have the aforementioned fantasy creatures in place of humans.
What once might have been brave warriors going into battle on their mighty steed are now your everyday, blue collar workers riding public transport. Magical creatures such as unicorns are now more akin to “pests” like raccoons or opossums, knocking over trash cans for food. And fearsome dragons are now common household pets.
It’s a fun premise that could have come off as a bit gimmicky under less capable hands. Thankfully, while certain other animation studios may have used the premise predominantly for gags and parody, Pixar has proven very reliable with keeping such things in check, and instead use their premises for the benefit of a story, as opposed to cheap laughs. And that’s as true here as ever.
The story revolves around two elf brothers: the younger brother Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt). Ian is the shy, awkward type, while Barley is something of a fearless goofball, and is obsessed with the magical past of his world (and the tabletop games it inspired). Their father Wilden passed away when Barley was very young, shortly before Ian was born.
On Ian’s sixteenth birthday, his mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) presents him with a surprise from his late father. This particular gift was to be given to both boys once they were both over sixteen, and not even Laurel is sure of what it is.
It turns out this gift is a wizard’s staff. Laurel mentions that when her husband grew ill, he “got into some strange things,” and it seems the old magic of the world happened to be among those things. Along with the staff is a spell, created by Wilden, which will allow him to be resurrected for a twenty-four hour time period, so that he may see who his sons grew up to be. As Barley notes, a spell that powerful would need a catalyst, which Wilden has included with the spell and staff in the form of a rare Phoenix Gem.
Barley tries for hours to get the spell to work, to no avail. Eventually, Ian – longing to meet the father he never knew – gives it a shot, and it begins to work. Slowly but surely, the spell is bringing Wilden back to the world of the living. Barley busts in and tries to help his brother, but the distraction, along with Ian’s lack of confidence, ends up making the spell go awry. The Phoenix Gem is destroyed before the spell can finish, leaving Wilden only half-resurrected. And by that I mean only his lower torso has returned to the realm of the living, which ends in a kind of blue vortex where his upper half should be connected.
Ian loses face, seemingly botching his one chance to meet his father. But Barley recalls a quest from one of his tabletop RPGs (which, in this fantasy world, are based on historical fact) that tells of a way to claim another Phoenix Gem. And so, following Barley’s knowledge of the adventure, the brothers – with Dad-legs in tow – set out in Barley’s van “Guinevere” on a quest to claim the Phoenix Gem so they can complete the spell before the twenty-four hours are up, so that they can see their father. Meanwhile, Laurel is on her sons’ trail, trying to keep them out of danger, where she is eventually allied by “Corey” the Manticore (Octavia Spencer).
It’s actually one of the more touching premises of the Pixar library (which is saying something), and again, under less capable hands this plot may have floundered. If one were to judge Onward from its marketing, after all, one wouldn’t be at fault to think – with the brothers disguising the living legs of their deceased father as a person – that it was some kind of kid-friendly version of Weekend at Bernie’s. Had this premise been under the umbrella of certain other CG animation studios, an emphasis on gags may have turned it into just that.
What makes Pixar stand out is that – despite their whimsical premises – they always try to put story and characters at the forefront. They don’t always succeed, mind you (The Good Dinosaur happened), but their track record is second only to Studio Ghibli in the world of animated features. And Onward is one of Pixar’s better films in recent years, if maybe not quite on the top echelon of the studio’s works.
The subplot with Laurel and the Manticore could have been given an extra scene or two, as it often seems forgotten for long stretches of time. But on the plus side, the main story is consistently delightful. The film does a great job at making both Ian and Barley into relatable, sympathetic characters. Perhaps this is giving me a bias in favor of the picture, but I couldn’t help but see parallels with me and my oldest brother with Ian and Barley (Though my brother is much smarter than Barley, and I’m not nearly as competent as Ian). The story revolving around these brothers just wishing to spend a day with a deceased parent is quite touching. Pixar has a strong track record when it comes to making their stories feel personal, and Onward feels among the most personal of all of them.
As stated, the main plot successfully takes advantage of the film’s setting and premise by merging a fantasy adventure with a road trip buddy movie to surprising effect. It’s delightful to see how the filmmakers weave these two genres together. You get the feeling that the folks at Pixar must’ve had some fun figuring out how a fantastic journey translates with contemporary life. It’s a lot of fun.
The animation, as you would come to expect from Pixar, is top notch. The contemporary scenery like gas stations and freeways may seem to subdue the fantastic elements of the movie somewhat, but that’s kind of the point. This is a world where magic only just exists anymore, it makes sense for the fantasy element to be underplayed, visually speaking. Though with that said, I still hope Pixar delves deeper into a fantasy world for a feature down the road, since it allows for endless possibilities that aren’t attached to a specific motif (think of how limited the world of the Cars movies feels, because it’s a limiting premise. Going full fantasy would remove such shackles entirely and could set the animators’ imaginations loose).
Point being that Onward is a captivating film to look at, even if it may not reach the peak of the studio’s visual splendor (that honor still probably has to go to Inside Out which, no surprise, featured Pixar’s most abstract concept). I do wish the character designs for some of the background characters and creatures would have received a little more love however, as it seems the elves are the only prominent fantasy race Pixar managed to make their own. Though extra credit in character design has to go to the final obstacle of Ian and Barley’s quest which, without spoiling too much, is one of the more humorous giant monster battles in movies since the Ghostbusters faced off with the Stay Puffed Marshmallow Man.
Onward is a splendid film that further extends Pixar’s legacy of quality animated features. It tells a compelling story about brotherhood with its two memorable lead characters, and uses its unique premise to deliver both fun and emotion to great effect. Onward is another shining (Phoenix) gem in Pixar’s crown.