Pixar Animation Studios’ films are at their best when they’re wholly, earnestly original. While sequels, prequels and spinoffs have characterized many of the studio’s releases in the last decade, every time Pixar releases something as brilliantly imaginative as 2017’s “Coco,” audiences are in for an uplifting experience.
“Onward,” the newest film in Pixar’s lineup, had the potential to have the same effect, as the studio’s first truly original film in nearly three years. Moreover, as a film that centers on the relationship between two brothers, “Onward” introduces a duo that feels as fleshed-out and authentic as many of the studio’s previous classic pairs. The film often feels overly designed and occasionally mechanical, however, from its casting to its rushed attempts at LGBTQ+ representation. But ultimately, “Onward” is an enjoyable, moving addition to Pixar’s collection, offering plenty of laughter — and tears — along the journey.
The film takes place in a fantasy world where magic once played a major role in shaping the lives of its elves, wizards and other mystical residents. Following years of technological and urban growth, magic becomes a thing of the past; even if they’re still fantasy creatures, all of the characters in this world feel like normal human beings.
On his 16th birthday, lanky teenage elf Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) discovers that he is actually a wizard, having inherited magical powers from his late father. His older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), though not a wizard, supports and guides Ian’s harnessing of his capabilities through the use of a Dungeons & Dragons-esque spellbook, on which Barley is a self-proclaimed expert. When the boys accidentally use a spell to materialize the bottom half of their father — that is, only his legs — they set off on a journey to find the magical stone that can help them bring back the rest of their father before the magic wears off.
From just the synopsis and trailers for the film, it’s clear that the story itself is a unique spin on the portrayal of fantasy quests in movies. Dan Scanlon, who directed and co-wrote the film, ensures that the pacing of the story never fails the humor and charm in the script, even if “Onward” follows the traditional structure of an adventure film.
Although the setting and structure of the narrative aren’t as original as the film portends, Scanlon ensures that “Onward” makes the most of its premise, both in its frequent employment of subtle, sly humor and in the coming-of-age narrative at its core. As the film reaches an emotional head, it’s easy to view the script decisions as manipulative rather than sincere, but “Onward” effectively communicates its themes and the significance of the characters’ relationship in a satisfying and purely affecting way.
While the cast members are all largely effective in their respective roles, the presence of Holland and Pratt in key roles makes it difficult to forget that “Onward” is very much a product of the increasing dominance of Disney’s properties and branding across all of its subsidiaries. As memorable fixtures in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s difficult to ignore the notion that both Holland and Pratt are playing animated versions of themselves or their previous characters. Lively voice-acting performances from Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the boys’ mother and Octavia Spencer as a warrior-turned-restaurant-owner partially make up for what seems to be a rather corporatized, mechanical casting decision for the leads, but their characters receive too little screen time to thoroughly make a mark.
Still, “Onward” succeeds in spite of its flaws. The powerful emotions underscoring the perhaps predictable fantasy setting and characters indicate all that Pixar can still accomplish. A step in the right direction, the film is just a small taste of what the studio’s filmmakers are capable of spearheading when at their most creative and compelling.