Disney Movies

Onward Review – A Sprint to Adequacy

Pixar, the dominant brand in Western Animation, has made fantasy films for the past 25 years, yet it isn’t until now that one of their movies seems too unrealistic to believe. In Onward, we learn that magic exists in this universe, and it was a common practice amongst society. But then everyone stopped using magic after the discovery of electricity. Sorry, I call foul. You’re telling me that instead of flying around, wielding weapons, casting spells, and overall just being awesome, society forewent all of that because this universe’s equivalent of Thomas Edison flipped a light switch? This is like someone giving up Netflix because a Blockbuster Video opened 30 minutes away. Why couldn’t the magic and the electricity (read: not as good as magic!) exist in tandem? These are the questions I want answered, but Onward has other thoughts on it’s mind.

The film stars Tom Holland and Chris Pratt as Ian and Barley Lightfoot, two brothers who seem to be on different paths. Ian is a shy, nerdy high school student who couldn’t make a friend even if you took him to Build-A-Bear. His older brother Barley is way more outgoing, but doesn’t seem to have a career path, and is spending his “gap year” lounging around the house and occasionally picking up Ian from school. At the center of their respective anxieties is the absence of their father, who died before Ian was able to meet him. Luckily, their mom surprises them with one last gift from their late dad – a letter explaining the history of magic, and a spell that will allow their father to return from the dead for 24 hours.

From there, it’s basically a road trip movie as Ian and Barley go off to locate the macguffin needed to complete their spell. But even as Onward admittedly gets better as the adventure takes off, the film is plagued by uneven execution. This starts early on, as the humor in the first act lands on it’s face. The jokes are so unbelievably unimaginative, and the dialogue so insipid, that the movie takes about 40 minutes to get to it’s first genuine laugh.

There’s a sight gag early on where Ian and Barley’s stepfather is revealed to the audience to be half-horse, and the movie seems to think this is more surprising than it actually is. There’s an unfunny scene where Ian accidentally smears his face with the notes written on his hand, and a recurring gag where a character has Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” as her ringtone (there’s no character-driven context for this joke, the writers just thought the song itself was funny enough.) This is quite a 180 from last year’s hilarious Toy Story 4, and it’s the awkward energy of the humor that makes it tough to warm up to Onward early on.

As a result, the film’s positives are harder to appreciate but are not absent. When Onward focuses less on the comedy, and more on the angst of Ian and his yearning for his dead dad, is when the film begins to hit a stride. There are great themes at play here – that you can’t plan on life going exactly the way you want it, that you have to live in the moment. There’s also the idea that our loved ones may not be the person we’d like them to be, but that doesn’t mean they deserve our disdain. This comes to bear when Ian and Barley are forced to use their magic to form a disguise, and evade the cops (which may be the best scene in the film.)

Eventually, the film does hit the right balance between adventure, action, and comedy. The upswing starts when the brothers meet a docile manticore (voiced by Octavia Spencer) who is actually harboring a thirst for violence due to her past life. We end up meeting a biker gang made up of fairies (Pixie Dusters), who get into a fit of road rage with the protagonists. The Dusters are so amusingly belligerent that they probably deserve their own spinoff.

Source: Walt Disney Pictures


But ultimately, the verdict on Onward won’t be decided on how entertaining the side characters are. What matters most is the central story – which is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the quest leads to an ending that may be unsatisfying for some viewers. But on the other hand, it’s easy to see how the screenwriters came to this climax given the narrative buildup. Onward’s ending is bittersweet for a variety of reasons, but it’s never all that emotional, especially when compared with previous entries in the studio’s history.

Of course, we’re supposed to feel emotional, but something is holding the film back. Whether it’s how distracting Holland and Pratt are as their overly recognizable voices bring these characters to life, or how long it takes the film to move past it’s awkward phase. Perhaps it’s a lack of tension and drama (the sibling conflict, and the movie’s attempt at a villain don’t feel sufficient enough), but Onward comes off flaccid rather than a product of passion.

The inspiration for the film came from director Dan Scanlon after the passing of his father; surely there is passion there. But it never fully translates to the screen. There’s a relatibility to the audience that was incredibly apparent in Coco, Inside Out, Up, and Toy Story, but it’s missing here. Those films featured characters or situations that were familiar; even if it wasn’your own experience, we could relate to it based on someone we knew. Two brothers longing for their father should feel similarly saddening, but we don’t take the full journey with Ian and Barley. Much of their relationship is told to us in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flashbacks, in the third act no less when this work should have been done much earlier. Prior to that, we get brief glimpses of Ian’s struggles in the real world, but the scenes are so bad that you end up focusing on that rather than sympathizing with the characters. It’s that lack of relatibility that keeps Onward grounded. It has moments of intrigue, short bursts of empathy, but it largely fails to get any magic going.

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