Movie Guru: ‘Onward’ isn’t peak Pixar, but it’s still pretty good
Even when Pixar isn’t at its best, it’s usually still pretty darn good.
That’s definitely the case with “Onward,” the studio’s latest full-length feature. The unadvertised melancholic undertone isn’t for everyone, but there’s still plenty of magic in this brotherly adventure. With plenty of heart and some fun twists on the usual magical concepts, the movie turns out to be a cinematic road trip worth a few hours of your time.
The movie is set in a fantasy world in which magic has been set aside for the convenience of technology. Ian, a young elf who’s just hit his 16th birthday, finds a spell meant to bring back his long-dead father for a single day. When the spell goes wrong and only half of his dad comes back, he goes on an adventure with his quest-obsessed older brother to complete the spell and finally meet his dad.
Though the trailers don’t make this clear, the movie leans hard into dealing with the grief of a departed parent and how it affects sibling relationships. It’s based on personal experience from director Dan Scanlon and provides a deep emotional core that leads to all of the movie’s most genuine moments. This is especially true of the big finale, which is hands-down the best moment of the whole film.
At the same time, it means that even the movie’s silliest elements have a bittersweet edge to them. The big prize at the end won’t save the day or change the reality these people have been living with for years. They’re just hoping for a little peace — and maybe fewer regrets.
Still, there’s plenty of fun to be had. A lot of that comes from the setting, which offers a fresher spin than some people realize. Most stories in which “magic has drained from the world” have some tragic, apocalyptic reason for it, but here the only thing that happened is a bunch of magical creatures discovered technology. It’s a joke with solid logical underpinnings, one that leads to some great visuals and clever moments. I deeply enjoyed pretty much every moment with the biker pixies, for example, and the idea of unicorns as annoying pest creatures made me laugh.
The movie’s one major flaw, sadly, is its other main theme. Part of Ian’s plot arc in the movie is about growing into himself, but it comes off as underdeveloped. It hits a lot of obvious checkpoints, but it’s mostly lacking the emotional truth of the grief plotline. There are a few exceptions, including a bridge that only works if you believe in yourself, but the moments mostly feel one-note.
For those with related life experience, “Onward” may well choke you up at some point. For those who don’t, it still turned out pretty enjoyable. Yes, it could have been more, but sometimes it’s just worth enjoying what you have.
Rated PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements
Screenplay by Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley and Keith Bunin
Directed by Dan Scanlon
Starring Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Mel Rodriguez, Kyle Bornheimer, Lena Waithe, Ali Wong and more
Grade: Three stars out of four
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.