Movie Review: “Onward”

   When Pixar first burst on the scene with Toy Story in 1995, it began building an acclaimed reputation for itself, one that has arguably went unrivaled in American animation. Over the next decade, they released some of the best animation I have personally seen, like IncrediblesBug’s Life, and Finding Nemo, and it wasn’t until Cars was released that it showed a small chip in the brand’s armor. Cars wasn’t a bad animated film, but it didn’t checkoff all the boxes I think many would have liked. At best, it felt like a fluke, as Pixar went back to business as usual, releasing fantastic films like WALL-E and Up, but, then, Cars 2 was released, and was, in my opinion, a bad film.

   The next decade thereafter has had some more middling results for the brand. Coco and Inside Out were great, and a lot of fun, but I couldn’t help but be disappointed with unnecessary sequels like Toy Story 4The Incredibles 2Finding Dory, and Monsters University, whereas The Good Dinosaur brought the brand its first financial disappointment. Their latest film Onward is the start of a new decade of Pixar Animation, and with all of the franchise sequels out of their system for the moment, with another original film called Soul on the horizon, I am optimistic about what is ahead. 

   Unfortunately, Onward will stand as, by-far, the lowest grossing animated film released by Pixar, earning just over 100 million (the second-lowest, The Good Dinosaur, made over 300 million) and will likely be a costly misfire for Disney this year. This absolutely comes with an asterisk, however. As many of you reading this are most certainly aware, Onward was removed from theaters ahead of schedule as a consequence in the (as of this writing) ongoing Corona virus outbreak, which has resulted in a shutdown of nearly all theaters across the globe. We are only left to speculate what the theatrical response would have been otherwise.

   Personally, I think a lot of the fare Onward was met with, or the lack thereof, is more comparable to a film like The Good Dinosaur than, say, Inside Out. While it no doubt would have been better received under different circumstances, I don’t believe the marketing campaign, the general audience response, and the word-of-mouth would have translated to a major hit for the brand. Money isn’t everything though! And, in-fact, most of everyone who saw Onward had a positive reaction the film. As psyched as I was about Pixar developing an original film, I couldn’t help but have a lukewarm reaction to the trailers I had seen for the film. 

   Onward was directed by Dan Scanlon from a screenplay written by Scanlon, Jason Headley, and Keith Bunin. Dan’s feature-length directorial debut was fellow Pixar film Monsters University. The cast is comprised of several familiar names, with voice-work from actors and actresses like Tom HollandChris PrattJulia Louis-Dreyfus, and Octavia Spencer

   The film is a suburban fantasy, set in a world where mythological characters and magical creatures no longer use their special abilities, and instead, have entered into a lifestyle more based in technology and mundane life. In other words, they went from whimsical, adventurous people to lazy, boring people who don’t have anything special about them, you know, like us.

   Onward follows two elf brothers. The oldest (voiced by Chris Prat) elf longs for the forgotten journeys and splendor of yesteryear, enshrouding himself in tabletop and role-playing fantasy games. Meanwhile, the younger elf is a little more down to Earth (or, uh, Onward?), wanting to fit in with his classmates and find somewhere he belongs in the world. The brothers lost their father many years ago, as a gift, their mother brings them a wooden staff left to them by their father.

   The wooden staff acts as the catalyst for the film because the staff is capable of bringing their deceased father back to life for a single twenty-four hour period. Their initial attempt fails – bringing only the bottom-half of their father, but not the rest. The film is about the relationship between the brothers, the loss of magic in their society, and the goal of seeing their father again before they run out of time.

   The biggest detriment to Onward is the curse of the standard that comes with the best of Pixar‘s library. This is a film that I think would shine brighter had its creator been Illumination or even Dreamworks (even if How to Train Your Dragon 3 was the best animated film I watched last year). The animation in this film is dazzling and efficient, even if I don’t necessarily believe it breaks any new ground. The production-value is high and the voice-talent is up to the task of creating enjoyable, heartwarming characters for us to enjoy.

   The subject-matter has its eccentricities, like with how they are lugging around the bottom-half of their deceased father’s resurrected body for the whole journey, but is otherwise familiar and safe. As I watched it, I was able to call-out most of the plot segment by segment, far before they happened. This is not because I am a gifted psychic, but because a lot of the film is fairly predictable from the start. Everything you think will happen does happen, and every sentiment follows a straight-line to its payoff.

   This is not to say the film is bad by any stretch. The film is accomplished by a talented crew and they are more than equipped to tell the story they want to tell with Onward (which may, in turn, be a backhanded compliment, given how much they are shown themselves capable of). It is a perfectly satiable animated fare, but it doesn’t transcend the genre or standout beyond being a worthwhile, enjoyable film.

   Onward is a likable film that spins a yarn with familiar strands, but does it well. It isn’t among the classics, but it at least lands well on the list. I would recommend it to fans of Pixar and animation. 

Placement on the List: – The (Upper Tier) Decents

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