Onward, directed by Dan Scanlon and written by Scanlon, Jason Headley and Keith Bunin tells the story of the Lightfoot brothers, Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt), who go on a magical quest to find a way to bring their father back for one day.
This movie is…entertaining. It is fun to watch; there’s not a sequence that was boring or felt dragged out. It succeeds in achieving a quick pace and making the whole film seamless. The film presents quite an imaginative setting that has a ton of scope to expand upon. It is filled to the brim with really artistic designs and elements that give you a good sense of this new world. Underneath it all is quite a touching bonding story, which you don’t see coming. The animation is stunning and Onward is another testament as to why Pixar is leading in this industry. While I liked the film overall, there were just some major issues staring me in the face that I couldn’t let go off. On the one hand, it’s great that there are so many creative ideas in the film, but that’s where the problem lies as well. There are SO MANY creative ideas in the film. The makers aren’t able to explore all of them fully, especially given the runtime. The imagination put into the ideas really does shine through and make the whole concept seem quite ambitious, but it’s almost like the film relies on us revelling in how good the concept itself is, rather than presenting something richer.
The film also has an issue where they set up one thing but go in a completely different direction. This happens constantly. For example, we’re introduced to the concept of magic and wizards and other fantasy elements existing in the past, but they’re now gone in favour of technology and modernisation. This seemed like a set-up for a very obvious metaphor about today’s world, but the whole magic concept ends up being a contrivance for the characters and doesn’t mean anything to the world of the story. Had it been that way, the themes could’ve been much stronger and more hard-hitting. I guess the attempt was to subvert viewer expectations as that is what the third act, and in fact the whole movie, relies on. And it saved the film big time. The perspective shift near the end was extremely effective and easily the best part of the movie. It makes you think about the story in a completely new context. It was the one expectation subversion that worked and how. Felt like a classic Pixar-Third-Act moment. If only everything leading up to this point was just as good, the film could’ve been this year’s Coco.
Onward has characters that are quite likeable, if not the most memorable. Ian is the youngest in the Lightfoot family and lacks self-assurance and confidence. While this is a very beaten-to-death trope, they go a little deeper with it, so it fits within the story. On his 16th birthday decides he wants to be bold and confident like his dad. The film required his need to be stronger, to get us on board with the quest concept, which is mostly driven by his elder brother Barley instead. He is a fantasy fanatic who wants everything around him to be like a fantastical quest (Chris Pratt was perfect casting for this). It makes sense that he would push his brother to pursue a ‘quest’, however, had Ian been the singular driving force it would’ve made him a more active character, something that works perfectly in his arc. The issue with Barley is his arc kicks in toward the middle of the movie, making him seem more like a supporting character till then.
Honestly, I was getting a little tired of him till they decided to give him some depth, which also didn’t feel solid and earned. Even his resolution, while effective, was a product of actions he takes because of Ian’s need, again casting him off as a supporting character. More focus should’ve been put on him, but I also understand that that would ruin the impact of the ending a bit. It is, after all, a bonding story. Speaking of supporting characters, their mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and the ‘Manticore’ Corey (Octavia Spencer) were so funny. Every time the film cut back to them, I was excited, and it didn’t feel unnecessary. The biggest issue lies with Wilden Lightfoot, Ian and Barley’s father, the reason for the quest to begin in the first place. Throughout the movie, he is just his bottom half. Just his pants. This stopped him from being a complete character, no pun intended. I kept waiting for him to be one, but he is just a MacGuffin at the end of the day. Again, it is understandable that this was done for the ending and message they wanted to bring out. However, a twist should not be set up at the cost of a great experience for the audience. Onward also has great voice acting all across the board. In fact, it seemed like the actors weirdly had better chemistry than the characters. But overall, great performances.
The animation is breath-taking. The environments and objects that surround the characters look so photorealistic. The lighting effects and textures are just beautiful. Pixar just keeps getting better with no end in sight. There is an issue with this too though. For how realistic the surroundings look, the character designs are a bit cartoon-y and childish. They needed to pick one style and stick with it, like The Incredibles or Inside Out. That choice made Onward feel a little disjointed. The other technical aspects don’t stand out in any way, but they’re decent for what they are. The score needs special mention; it is detrimental to the final twist in the story. In fact a lot of the other sequences depend on how effective it is as well. Speaking of sequences, I wish they were a bit more unpredictable. The first two acts are filled with scenes where, as a viewer, you can tell exactly how they’re going to end, and its things like this that hold it back from being solid and unforgettable.
Onward is definitely an enjoyable film, but it was just that. Enjoyable while it lasted. Again, some ideas are really great, particularly one involving a truck behaving like a unicorn. Brilliant moment. The execution required the same amount of care put into the conception. Right now, it just comes off as a little rushed. The makers needed time to embrace the concepts fully to create something truly unique and significant.