In Pixar’s new film “Onward” the world was once full of real magic and mythical creatures. But doing magic was hard and as technology was developed the world took the easy path and became much like our own, complete with skyscrapers, freeways, and smart phones. The mythical creatures are still there, but somewhere along the way every one decided technology was easier than magic and its use faded into the past.
The movie follows two Elf brothers, Ian and his older brother Barley as they embark on quest left to them by their deceased father. Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) is the younger one. Ian has no memories of his father and at 16 is uncertain and anxious about whether he will amount to anything. Barley (voiced by Chris Pratt) has a few memories of their father, but not many. Barley is obsessed with preserving any bits of the past that still exist and has done his best to be there for his younger brother. Ian and Barley’s mom, Laurel Lightfoot (voice of Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is a hard working single mom who only wants the best for her boys. She shows herself to be level headed but also in touch with her warrior side.
“The story is inspired by my own relationship with my brother and our connection with our dad who passed away when I was about a year old,” says director Dan Scanlon. “He’s always been a mystery to us. A family member sent us a tape recording of him saying just two words: ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye.’ Two words. But to my brother and me—it was magic.
“That was the jumping-off point,” continues Scanlon. “We’ve all lost someone, and if we could spend one more day with them—what an exciting opportunity that would be. We knew that if we wanted to tell that story that we’d have to set the movie in a world where you could have that incredible opportunity.”
The Father as it turns out, is the MacGuffin of the movie, the thing the characters are chasing the whole movie only to find out it’s not the thing that’s important, but that the lessons learned along the way are the real treasure. Instead there is a heartwarming story of the strong bond of brotherhood and finding that maybe the person you need was there all along.
If that sounds like sort of ‘bro’ version of Frozen’s sisters focused movie, you would not be wrong.
Similar to Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur” there is a single plot vector in “Onward.” The brothers’ quest to get the gem needed to finish the spell to bring back the brother’s father drives the movie forward. The movie doesn’t diverge from the quest much other than to service the B-story, which is the mom’s own quest to help her boys.
The end of the movie is pretty much a foregone conclusion, so having a fairly straight path to get there left me somewhat underwhelmed with the lack of anything exciting in terms of writing. Instead of plot complications or unforeseen twists, there are obstacles to overcome and lessons that are learned along the way.
There’s also a major inconsistency. If doing magic was hard, which the prologue tells us is why it fell out of use in favor of technology, how come Ian is able to learn to master even the most difficult spells in less than 24 hours?
When the format of the movie is primarily a quest, you should expect the plot to be straight forward, but like in “The Good Dinosaur,” I think the story team took the idea of a linear story too far. The characters are never in any real peril and even when it looks like all hope is lost, you know it isn’t because of the plot developments already mentioned that have yet to occur.
Like many Pixar films there are a lot of in-jokes layered in to the fabric of the story and in the background. There was definitely a Pizza Planet logo, the A113 is given as a line of dialog, and there was an Aurora brand of dish washing soap. I’m sure more will surface on subsequent viewings. The idea that Unicorns, once beautiful creatures are now reduced to fighting over trash can scraps is a funny one that shows how far the world has changed is a good gag.
A lot of the movie feels (deliberately) familiar but with a fantasy twist. The houses of Mushroomton are all Mushrooms, fast-food joints all have names that sound like they’re out of the medieval age, and there’s a role-playing game that’s very much like Dungeons & Dragons, but since this world has actual dungeons and dragons, it’s not fantasy, but rather historical role play.
“Onward” cast featurette:
The very name “Onward” reminds me of Walt Disney’s famous maxim of “Keep moving forward.” It’s a good catchphrase but something Pixar has found difficult to consistently live up to in its latest films. The good does outweigh the bad, but “Onward” doesn’t really move forward as much as rush to an end and isn’t one of Pixar’s best efforts.
Pixar’s “Onward” will conjure itself into theaters beginning March 6.