As someone who usually went to the movie theater just about every single weekend, I usually end up seeing just about everything. Really the only reason that I won’t end up seeing a movie is if there’s already something better coming out that weekend, or it’s just something that I know I’ll actively dislike, and I don’t think I should both talking about it. But, there is one weird little caveat to all of that. I often still go check out more family-orientated movies, especially if it actually promises to have some sort of quality, such as a Pixar movie, but only if I have someone to go with me. I go to the movies by myself all the damn time, and I love it But, I’m also a big thirty year old guy without kids, so if my wife has no interest in seeing a kids movie, I’m not going to creep everyone around me out by going to see it alone. Such was the case with the latest Pixar film, Onward. I actually thought that Onward looked very up my alley, but I wasn’t able to catch it in theaters. However, thankfully, due to the ongoing chaos in the world right now, a lot of stuff that was still in the theaters when society collapses are now finding their way onto streaming, this film included. So, I sat down and got ready to check out Onward, a movie that I really hadn’t seen much of an opinion about. Most people I follow who reviewed the movie just kind of gave passing marks to it. It didn’t really seem to light anyone on fire, and since being “just okay” is apparently the greatest sin a Pixar movie can commit, it generally seems to be destined to being lumped in with forgettable fare like the Good Dinosaur. Which, is a bummer, because I actually really liked this movie.
Onward is set in a fairly typical Fantasy world, full of elves, magic, and dragons. But, unlike most stories in that genre, it jumps ahead quite a bit in time where magic has started to fade, and this fantastical society evolved into one more close to our own, relying on technology and science over swords and sorcery. We focus on a pair of elf brothers, Ian and Barley. Their father died when Ian was just a baby, and have lived with their mother Laurel, and things seem generally okay. Ian really regrets the fact that he never met his father though, and that really seems to have left a big impact on his development, leaving him a very awkward and self-conscious young man. But, things change forever on his sixteenth birthday when Laurel gives Ian and Barley a gift from their father, who said to wait until this day. It’s a wizard’s staff, complete with a rare Phoenix Gem, and a spell which seemingly will bring their father back to life for one day. And, after Barley fails to use the spell, Ian is able to successfully accomplish it. Partly. He messes up the spell at the last moment, resulting in only the lower half of their father being brought back to life. And, not content to just spend time with their dad’s legs, the two decide to go on an epic quest to try and find a second Phoenix Gem before the sun sets the next evening, and their dad is lost forever. Thankfully, Barley is obsessed with his culture’s more fantastical roots, and has memorized all sorts of facts about magic and the past, so he knows that the right steps they need to make.
This leads them to the lair of the Manticore, which used to be a tavern full of heroics, and is now a depressing chain restaurant. But, they do manage to get some information from the Manticore, leading them on a circuitous route to find one of the fabled Phoenix Gems. Meanwhile, Laurel has learned about her boys’ misguided quest, and after she too comes in contact with the Manticore the two head off to stop the boys, because while they leanred where the Gem may be, the Manticore forgot to tell them that there’s a curse involved that only she can defeat. We then get to follow Ian, Barley, and the legs of their father while they drive around their world, getting into all sorts of shenanigans, learning magic, squabbling, and doing their best to bond with the wobbly legs of their father. Unfortunately, after engaging in this epic quest they literally find themselves back where they started, with no Gem. Ian freaks out at Barley, blaming him for wasting time in order to turn this into a grand quest instead of giving him a chance to finally meet their father, while Barley deals with everyone constantly thinking he’s a cowardly screw-up. However, Barley does end up finding a Phoenix Gem, hidden just outside their school, at the same time that Ian gets a realization that Barley has been his father-figure his entire life. He comes to talk to Barley at the same time that Barley frees the Gem, summoning a massive dragon that’s made out of their school. Together with Laurel and the Manticore, Ian fights the dragon off, deciding that he doesn’t need any closure with his father, and that Barley should get the chance to finally say goodbye to him. The spell finally works, and for just a moment Barley is actually able to say goodbye, while Ian realizes what he was able to do for his brother. And, after it’s all done they go back to their lives, a little more functional, and with magic brought back into their lives.
I found myself really enjoying Onward, basically for the entire runtime. I’m not quite sure where the general dislike, and disinterest for this film is coming from, other than the insane standards that have been built up for Pixar. Everyone expects all of their output to be utter masterpieces, so anything that doesn’t reach that type of echelon is almost instantly written off as a lessor effort, something to be forgotten and ignored. But, I really liked Onward! It’s not perfect, and does get a little bogged down in the beginning with some pretty boilerplate ideas that don’t feel exactly fresh. I love the idea of a fantasy story taking place in a world where their society has advanced roughly to that of ours, but it also lends itself to some pretty hackey observations. But, once the two boys summon the legs of their father and go on an epic quest full of goofy jabs at both fantasy and these sorts of coming-of-age dramas, I think the movie really starts cooking. Tom Holland and Chris Pratt are great as our leads, really managing to pull off a believable brother relationship, full of frustration, affection, love, and disappointment. And, it’s genuinely funny! I know some people get all bent out of shape over the decision to literally have them carry around the legs of their dead father throughout the entire film, but it really does lend itself to some very funny moments, and the movie has a whole litany of funny fantasy observations that just keep paying off beautifully.
But, at the end of the day I just kind of end up feeling bad for Onward. It’s probably going to be remembered as a failure, largely due to two major factors outside of its control. The biggest is obviously the COVID-19 pandemic, which cut its release pretty short, and resulted in Disney quickly punting it to its streaming service, which is probably going to make it one of the lower grossing Pixar films. And, secondly, it’s just going to be saddled with that unfair expectations. People expect Pixar movies to be medium-redefining masterpieces, and when they just end up pretty fun little movies they’re deemed failures. Which, is unfortunate for a lot of reasons, but especially because this movie really keeps defying expectations, so I’m not sure why it can’t get across that hurdle. When the film’s first teaser trailer was released, I think a lot of people were pretty optimistic about it. A weird modern-day fantasy story that seems to be about a pair of brothers going on a road-trip/quest? Seems fun. But, then the legs of it all got announced, and it seems to have instantly put people off. But, when you actually sit down to watch the damn thing, it really is so much more than what people seemed to assume it was. It’s really heartfelt, it plays around with the brother relationship in a way that I’d never seen quite this well executed, and it subverts fantasy tropes time and time again, at all turns becoming something much more than I think anyone expected it to be. This movie is going to be ignored and forgotten, and I really hope people give it a shot and have as good a time with it as I did.
Onward was written by Dan Scanlon, Keith Bunon, and Jason Headley, directed by Dan Scanlon, and released by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2020.
Categories: Reel Talk