In my humble opinion, Pixar has been on a bit of a roll with their releases as of late. It’s arguable if there was ever a so-called “dark era” of Pixar, as they’ve always been known for putting out films of a fairly consistent quality. However, after seeing the surprisingly stellar “Toy Story 4,” I found myself with a bit of a renewed interest in Pixar and their upcoming releases. With that in mind, one of their projects that held my attention the most was none other than “Onward.” The premise of mixing the enchanted world of your average fantasy-adventure story with our modern society seemed like an idea with potential for great jokes and equally great storytelling. Still, the question remains if Disney and Pixar’s latest effort deliver an experience as epic as its premise. Let’s prepare ourselves for a great and mighty quest, and find out.
"Onward" sets up a very intriguing world from the beginning, being a society in which magic and fantasy still exists alongside modern technology like smartphones and televisions. The movie explains that at a certain point in history, technology was deemed to be the superior medium over magic for advancing society, leading to magic simply fading into obscurity. The bulk of the movie focuses on Ian and Barley Lightfoot, (voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt respectively), two brothers who tragically lost their father at a very young age. While Barley has a few passing memories of him, the younger brother Ian never even got to meet his dad before his passing. We pick up with the boys on Ian’s 16th birthday, where his mother (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) tells them that their dad left a special present behind that was to be given to them once they were both over 16. To everyone’s surprise, this ends up being a wizard’s staff capable of casting a restoration spell that will bring their dad back to life for a single day. Ian and Barley immediately try to cast the spell only to have it backfire, destroying the staff’s power element and ends up bringing back only the bottom half of their father from the ethereal world (because of course it does). After realizing that they still have time to fix the spell and bring their dad back properly, Ian and Barley set off on a quest to find a new power crystal in order to finish the restoration spell before their opportunity is gone for good.
That may sound like a lot of setup for a story, but the movie does a fantastic job of introducing these elements in a concise and natural way that allows the audience to get caught up on the rules of the movie’s world before throwing them directly into the main arc. Ian and Barley’s quest is filled to the brim with various set-pieces and destinations, ranging from gorgeous countrysides and ancient stone temples to overcrowded freeways and grimey pizza parlors (battles that I’m sure we’re all probably much more familiar fighting). This blending of fantasy and our own realistic, modern society is part of what makes the movie as a whole so charming. It also helps that the writing here is Pixar at its very best. The fantastic script coupled with some truly expressive performances from the actors makes for a fast paced and snappy tone for the film that ensures things are constantly engaging. The overall fantastic writing serves to the benefit of almost every aspect of the movie, from the humor to the action and even the more emotional moments. The plot also has several varied twists and turns, and the ending (which of course won’t be covered here) delivers an especially satisfying conclusion that really accentuates the overall theme of the movie. The animation is just the icing on the cake, being absolutely gorgeous. Every single character and environment is rendered with an absolutely shocking amount of detail, and the scenes that the movie puts forward really pop off the screen as a result.
While “Onward” may just barely miss the lofty heights set by Pixar’s most beloved properties such as “Toy Story” or “Finding Nemo,” there’s really not a whole lot I can fault this movie on. The film tells an interesting and surprisingly heartfelt story, all with plenty of humor and action along the way. The visuals remain constantly impressive and the voice performances are top notch material, sending the production values of the film through the roof and making it a truly enjoyable film to watch. It might not be as memorable in 10 years as some of the studio’s all-time greats, but it is one of my personal favorite movies to come from the studio in a long time. “Onward” is a film that I can confidently give my full recommendation as a movie that is well worth the asking price for both kids and kids at heart, and it shows that the classic Disney magic that we’ve come to know and love is still very much alive in today’s cinemas.