You can always rely on Pixar to deliver an imaginative, colorful and beautiful picture that has enough there to entertain both kids and adults. Their latest film, “Onward” is no exception.
While the film isn’t groundbreaking in the slightest or even close to one of Pixar’s best films, that doesn’t stop “Onward” from giving us one of the more creative metaphorical worlds it has ever presented. It delivers on everything it sets out to do – good laughs, excellent morals, a wonderful ending and a sense of wonder about the world that only a Studio Ghibli film can match.
In the case of “Onward,” the film is about a mystical world filled with every sort of mythical creature, goblins, manticores, dragons, centaurs, pixies and so many others, as well as the ability to use magic. However, magic doesn’t come easy in this world and can only be used properly by skilled sorcerers. Non-sorcerers decided to make life easier for themselves by creating something that is much easier to use – technology. As their society started using more tech like cars and phones instead of spells and staffs, the citizens got used to the ease of it until magic became a legend, a product of a long forgotten era.
From there, the film takes place in what can only be described as modern times, where the mythical creatures act no different than we do, if only a little disinterested and feeling like something is missing. We see a family of elves who exemplify this, mostly a pair of brothers, the socially awkward Ian (Tom Holland), and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) who is obsessed with the mythical past and treats everything like a Dungeons and Dragons adventure. On Ian’s 16 birthday though, their mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gives him a present from his deceased father – a wizard’s staff with a spell that will bring the father back to life for 24 hours. But when the spell doesn’t work exactly how it’s supposed to, Ian and Barley have to go on a quest throughout their world to fix it if they want to have a chance to see their father one last time.
What makes “Onward” work so well is its world building, making magic and spells that are so unique but also so hilarious in the hands of novices like Ian and Barley. A lot of the magic is based off of emotions or mental states, like focus and honesty, leading to a lot of visually comedic situations when Ian can’t stay on task and ends up being the same awkward self that we’ve come to love from Holland’s performance as Peter Parker. On top of that, so many of the magical creatures are handled well, put into modern situations that I would have never expected. Some of the best ones include pixies being a tough biker gang who threatens anyone who makes fun of their size, except that it takes about a dozen pixies to operate one regular sized motorcycle. Another great one is the manticore (voiced by Octavia Spencer), who is supposed to hand out dangerous quests to adventurers, and has turned her tavern into a Chuck-E-Cheese style restaurant to pay the bills, getting so caught up in the machinations of society that she forgets her true calling.
This terrific world building is balanced by the bond between Ian and Barley. On the surface, Ian appears to be your standard dorky teenager and Barley is your deadbeat brother stuck in the past. But actually, both brothers actively work to make the other a better person…or elf. Barley is always pushing Ian to do things he isn’t prepared for, giving one of the best lines in the movie that no one is ever fully prepared for anything so it’s better to just take the leap and trust in yourself. While Ian keeps Barley grounded in reality, never letting his fantasies get the better of him, but still engrossed in the amazement of magic and exploration.
Together their adventure is one, not just to discover more about their world, but also to learn about the magic they have within themselves and how wondrous they can be on their own. Holland and Pratt both turn in great performances to make it seem like these two really did grow up together, with Barley acting like the father Ian never had and Ian being Barley’s anchor. It all culminates in one of the best endings and morals in any Pixar film, where the journey of these two brothers is finally given a purpose.
Overall, “Onward” isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel or go places Pixar has never gone before, but it still delivers a solid ride that hits every proper emotional note while still creating a massive and entertaining world. It is exactly what you’d expect from Pixar, giving us something that everyone can enjoy, while still offering one of the better endings they’ve ever done. And for Pixar to still have so much to offer after all this time is magical in its own right.
Final Grade: B+