Disney’s “Onward” Review

Pixar’s newest adventure, “Onward,” was originally scheduled for a theatrical release but following the closure of theaters across the country because of the pandemic, Disney has called an audible and the animated film has landed on Disney Plus.

In this new venture, Pixar depicts a world in which mythical creatures have left magic behind in favor of technological advancements that parody our society. The film follows Ian, voiced by Tom Holland, a teenage elf on his 16th birthday, who along with his brother Barley, voiced by Chris Pratt, receive a magical gift from their late father that will allow them to see him again for one day. Unfortunately, the spell fails halfway through and they are left with a literal half of their dad, the lower half, loafers, dress pants and nothing more. Now Ian and Barley must go on a quest to complete the spell before the day ends. It’s a search for magic in a world where magic is now obsolete.

Unlike most of Pixar’s work, what makes Onward interesting is that the characters are rather mundane while the world itself is what breathes life into the film. The film merges Dungeons & Dragons like fantasy with elements of our own dull reality to playfully create a story of the rise of tech and the fall of magic. Unicorns fighting each other for garbage like vicious street rats, pixies forming threatening biker gangs, The Manticore, played by Octavia Spencer, turns her foreboding tavern into an imitation of family restaurant arcades like Chuck E Cheese’s. These outlandish fusions flash the confident creativity of Pixar. The ideas work because they dive headfirst into them without pulling any punches. Sights like one of the pixie bikers breaking a glass bottle to make a bottle shank, or The Manticore handing out crayons and paper placemats worked to sell these gags as full packages.

Although there is much to be said about the world in which this takes place, the character work is where Onward begins to show some of its holes. The characters are extremely ordinary, but this is not where the problem lies. Ian has normality, which is part of what makes him likable. His struggles with confidence, making friends, learning to drive, and the need for a father figure are classic struggles of the stereotypical American teen, and can be related to by viewers who have, will or are struggling with the same thing. Ian’s older brother Barley is the stereotypical mythical fantasy geek but is a breath of fresh air displaying mannerisms commonly associated with younger siblings despite being the eldest. His unshaken belief in magic, extreme positivity, never-ending enthusiasm, and love for his brother comes across as sometimes childish, but always wholesome. Seeing a pair of siblings who are not at odds with each other is unusual for animated films and was a welcome change of pace.

However, beyond this, Pixar fails to do much more with the characters. The brother’s mother Laurel, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, has a wonderful dynamic with Olivia Spencer’s Manticore, but their scenes never truly feel necessary in the grand scheme of things compared to the journey of the two brothers. In all of Pixar’s most successful outings, the characters find themselves face to face with some very hard-hitting real-life conflicts and have to settle on a compromise. Leaving a friend and possibly never seeing them again, the loss of a loved one, realizing that a dream you have is impossible, acknowledging that one day everyone will be forgotten, Pixar has tackled some heavy topics with a gusto that has left even some of the hardest adult hearts in tears. Unfortunately, that same vigor that we have come to expect from the studio isn’t found this time around.

Onward boasts some of Pixar’s strongest storytelling and visuals but unfortunately, it feels as though the storytelling was pumped into the world rather than the characters. It’s a fun film and you root for its characters all the way to the end, but the lack of one of Pixar’s hard to swallow conflicts leaves the film tasting a bit like decaf coffee. Tasty, enjoyable, but not with the strength you were looking for.