Review: Onward (2020)

Committed family LARPers: Disney/Pixar

Haven’t we been here before? SHREK, BRIGHT, DISENCHANTMENT and many others all present us with a fantasy world that operates by the rules of the world today to some extent. Pixar’s latest, ONWARD, might not be the sharpest or most original animated family adventure, but it is one of the most heartfelt.

In a fantasy land, magic has been abandoned in favour of the far easier electricity and the world has continued to evolve to present day with much less wonder. Meek teenage elf Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) is gifted a wizard’s staff on his sixteenth birthday and together with role-playing game obsessive older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) they try and cast a spell to bring their dearly departed dad back to life for one final day. Things of course do not go according to plan, and so the brothers depart on a dangerous quest…

This world is populated by, according to director Dan Scanlon, “everything that would be on the side of a van in the 1970s”. Think Prog Rock, Dungeons & Dragons and authors who thought they could be the next Tolkien, all dumped in sitcom America. So you get suburban elves, biker gang pixies, trolls in toll booths, centaurs as beat cops and a manticore running a family restaurant, not to mention unicorns going through the bins.

Ian and Barley’s shoddily resurrected dad appearing for the majority of the film as a disembodied pair of legs (their spell went a bit wrong) is a thing of genius, Pixar’s best running sight gag in a long time. What the brothers do to the legs to make him blend in a bit better is even funnier, especially for the reactions of passers by.

We get not one, but two explicit INDIANA JONES references in this quest. There are as you’d expect plenty of winks to fantasy and adventure tropes, and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them sight gags, my favourites being a drive-thru “now serving second breakfast” and the way in which they visualise Barley’s rustbucket van making a heroic charge. It’s a dazzling film to see in IMAX though the larger format probably isn’t the best for spotting all the jokes in the background. Now it’s coming early to Disney+ I’m sure there will be many, many pause-worthy moments.

The supporting players are arguably not given enough to do except react to the progress or lack thereof of the Lightfoot brothers, and an interesting cast aren’t served well enough by the script. We’ve seen single parents and step-parents go on these journeys to understand their children before – giving them pointy ears, horns of hooves doesn’t make their stories automatically stand out. Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Octavia Spencer give appealing performances as Mrs Lightfoot and the entrepreneurial Manticore respectively, but you want them to show a little more growth to go with the jokes at their expense as middle-aged fantasy women.

This is also a world where the internal logic doesn’t quite add up if you pause to think about it for any length of time. It’s a convenient storytelling shortcut to have the film world the same as ours is now but with fantasy creatures, but it might have been more interesting to see what else might have changed in a world formally powered by magic, or to tell us exactly how a centaur driving a car works…mechanically.

It may take a while to find its feet, to realise what it is, but when the pieces move into place Onward becomes another classic Pixar tear-jerker. It’s not quite the classic fathers-and-sons tale and the slightly divergent path taken is pleasingly refreshing. So Onward is new, but not new enough to be really special. That said, even mid-level Pixar is pretty great animation chock full of honest emotion, visual invention and amusing adventure hijinks. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

Writer and film fanatic fond of black comedies, sci-fi, animation and films about dysfunctional families.
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