When a new Pixar film comes out, the world stops and pays attention. That’s because Pixar has mastered the magic formula of emotional storytelling and compelling characters to produce world-class films. Will the studio’s newest release, Onward, bring the magic again? Keep reading our Onward movie review to find out!
Onward Movie Review
Set in a modern fantasy world that’s all but forgotten magic, Onward tells the story of two blue-skinned elvish brothers, Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) Lightfoot, who go on a quest to reunite with the late father. Their father, Wilden, died when the boys were both very young: Ian was just a baby with no memories of his dad and Barley was just a toddler with only a handful memories.
Ian is an awkward and unconfident teenager. He’s obsessed with learning everything about his dad because he’s convinced that his life would be different if his dad were still around showing him the ropes. Barley is an energetic, magic enthusiast, engrossed the old magical world. He spends his time driving around in his unicorn-painted van, Guinevere, trying to preserve the city’s old magical relics and playing a Dungeons & Dragons-esque game “Quests of Yore”.
On Ian’s 16th birthday, the boys’ mom Laurel (Julie Louis-Dreyfus) gives the brothers a present from their late father: a wizard staff complete with a visitation spell that will resurrect the dad for just 24 hours. Ian gets the spell to work, but the magical gem needed to complete the spell shatters in the middle of casting it, leaving just the dad’s legs. In order to bring their dad fully back, they must obtain another rare phoenix gem before the sun sets the next day, since the clock already started ticking on the dad’s time back on earth.
Once the boys depart on their quest, the plot gets a bit formulaic, feeling too much like the Dungeons & Dragons game from which director Dan Scanlon obviously took inspiration. Ian and Barley easily solve the riddles and clues needed to get them to the next stage in their adventure. Either way, it’s fun to see how the embers of the ancient world and magic are still alive in New Mushroomton.
The brothers’ relationship is the core of the film, as Ian and Barley (with their legs-only dad in tow) set out on a quest together. Yes, the dad is present, but since he can’t talk or interact much with the boys, he’s mostly a bumbling third wheel that is good for a few gags here and there. But things aren’t always sunshine and rainbows, as there are lots of quarrels, misunderstandings, and hurt feelings along the way. This allows the brothers’ bond to be truly tested on their journey as they learn to work together towards their mutual goal of reuniting with their dad.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Onward is its premise and setting: a once-magical fantasy world found magic too difficult to master, so turned to technology to make life easier. We find our characters in modern fantasy world, a suburb called New Mushroomton, that’s void of magic: power lines litter the sky, an expressway filled with rattling cars, and garbage-eating unicorns roam the streets (these glorious, majestic creatures to us are just vermin akin to raccoons to them, which is a pretty funny gag).
That, however, is where all the intrigue stops. We’re told that magic has been so long forgotten, yet it’s so easily mastered by Ian. His brother Barley, being a magic-obsessed zealot but not having the gift of magic himself, seems to know everything they need to do to properly wield the staff. It makes you wonder why more people aren’t as interested in these lost arts, searching for magical objects, or bringing back dead family members if these two could figure it out in a few hours.
The cast is small, but packs a punch–especially when it comes to the fire-breathing dragon/lion creature, the Manticore (Octavia Spencer). This formerly ferocious beast now manages a family restaurant called the Manticore’s Tavern and deals with mundane small business stresses such as late employees, cold food, and entitled customers. She’s a key character to helping the Lightfoots on their mission, but refuses to help due to too many lawsuits. Her character is bound to be a crowd favorite as she’s dimensional, charming, and goes on her transformational quest of her own.
While there are a few lulls in the story, Onward eventually gets the audience where it needs to go, tugging at your heartstrings along the way in typical Pixar fashion. For a film focused so much on bringing back magic, it’s missing the magic itself. However, Ian and Barley and their brotherly bond carry the film and ultimately save the day.
Director: Dan Scanlon
Cast: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Mel Rodriguez, Lena Waithe, Ali Wong
Rating: PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements
Be sure to check out Morgan’s Onward movie review on our YouTube channel or watch below!