DIRECTED BY: Dan Scanlon
CAST: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus
At first glance, Pixar’s recent endeavor, Onward, might seem like a step down for the studio. The opening scenes feel like something out of an animated teen drama, but with a gimmicky exterior. Characters look similar to those of DreamWorks movies like Trolls or Madagascar–all humor and appearance, but with half the depth. While the atmosphere and the backgrounds look aesthetically impressive, filled to the brim with fun in-world details, the texturing of the animation looks very un-Pixar. However, once we dig a little deeper, it’s clear that this is one of the studio’s deepest and authentically heartwarming films yet.
Conceived by writer/director Dan Scanlon after hearing an audio clip of his father who died when he and his older brother were very young, Onward has an inspiration behind it that transcends typical conceptualization exercises, and it shows. The fantasy aspect is at the forefront visually, but truly comes second to the incredibly thought-provoking story underneath.
16-year-old elf, Ian (Tom Holland), lives in a world much like our own, but instead of humans, there are cyclopes, pixies, and elves, like himself. There’s a rumor that this land was once filled with magic, but after the creatures invented electricity and modern technologies, they found no need for it. And thus, centuries later, Ian’s high school life and the world around him are much similar to yours and mine.
One day, while wearing his deceased father’s college sweater, he’s approached by a stranger who knew his dad and begins telling Ian stories that he never knew. Struggling with assertiveness, Ian decides to make an effort to be more like his father.
He never met him and only knows as much as his mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), have told him.
Despite the paint-by-numbers and amateurish exposition, along with the seemingly uninspired banter early on, the rest of the film contains a captivating series of events with masterful storyboarding and direction by Scanlon and his team. Ian and Barley’s mom reveals that their father left them a magical staff that can bring him back to life, but only for one day. Barley, who is enthused by magic card games and believes that magic still exists, tries the spell but it doesn’t work. Ian, who had always written off his brother as clueless, half-heartedly tries the spell for himself and it works…sort of. Their father comes back to life alright, but only from the waist down. Unable to speak to him or see his face, Ian and Barley are determined to find a Phoenix Stone–the only thing that can fulfill the spell. So they set off on a journey, guided by Barley’s knowledge of magic from his card game, to find clues in a world that has become long-overgrown with a very realistic outlook.
Not necessarily as funny as it seems like it should be from its more modern patois, one of the things setting Onward apart from the Pixar pack is its humor, which often falls flat despite itself. Most of the laughs come from Ian and Barley’s torso-less father whom they’ve placed balled-up clothes upon to serve as his limp upper half, so he runs around like one of those floppy balloon men outside car dealerships. It’s very funny.
Pixar has always proven to be masterful at crafting unpredictable stories, and one of the biggest strengths of Onward is that you never see where it’s going, right up to the finish with its unbelievably touching resolution. The twists serve a higher purpose than to simply surprise an audience. There’s an introspective depth and growth that not only justifies them, but makes them the most unique part of this already high-concept premise.
The narrative is not necessarily as tight or kinetic as, say, Toy Story 3 or Up, but there’s a beauty to the looseness, and the filmmakers use this to their advantage. Ian and Barley are venturing into unknown territory, so typical story conventions are used only as a blueprint, with the surprises being found within that framework rather than without.
The writers have found the best way to fuse modern day devices with a high fantasy universe, and have quite the understanding of the latter and all of its minutiae. With today’s technology, a story like this could have been told in a live-action medium, but not in a way that would have felt this congruous and seamless. Instead of smart phones and automobiles standing out like a sore thumb among elves and pixies, the animation is used as a device here to matte the two elements together.
The fantasy, itself, isn’t used as a gimmick, but with a definite passion behind it. With unique spells and specific rules to accompany them, the writers keep things intricate, yet simple, not overloading the audience with too much magic or using it out of convenience (although some of the more “realistic” action sequences feel improbable). Instead of fantasy being at the forefront, it’s used to garnish this world. As Ian and Barley make their way, the awareness of their world’s magic increases more and more around them, but there are bigger things that this film sets out to do.
There’s a simplicity to the journey only featuring Ian, Barley, and a version of their father. There aren’t really any side characters who come in and out of the picture in order to manipulate the dynamic–it’s only them. On a tangential note, the film’s weakest point just might be that lack of fun one-offs. Our protagonists are on a road trip of sorts, with road trip antics, but without all of the typical quirky road trip side charact rs. The filmmakers try including them here and there, but none of them really work or are memorable enough.
The writers have found the best way to fuse modern day devices with a high fantasy universe, and have quite the understanding of the latter and all of its minutiae.
Although not always feeling like a typical Pixar film, Onward’s strengths might just lie in that very fact. There’s a refreshing detachment from those certain expectations that have always accompanied the legendary studio and its output, and for the most part this film allows us to experience it with a fresh lens. The flaws do help us separate it, at least subconsciously, from the weight of being a Disney project as well. While not necessarily the best Pixar film to date, its authentic heart and thought-provoking twists make it just as indelible.