Pixar’s ‘Onward’ is a magical break from reality but not the studio’s best work

Devin Bosley

Pixar’s “Onward” creates a world that poses an interesting question: What would a fantasy world be like if it adopted the technology and culture of a modern world? The film centers on two elven brothers, Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) Lightfoot, who live in the town of New Mushroomton, where magic has seemingly been forgotten in favor of the convenience of technology. On the day of his sixteenth birthday, Ian receives a mysterious gift from his father who died before Ian was born. Along with a mystical staff are the outlines to a  visitation spell, which will resurrect his father for one day. 

However, while performing the spell, something goes awry; now, only the father’s legs appear and the gem the boys need to perform the spell is broken. Ian and Barley then embark on a quest to retrieve a new “phoenix gem” and bring the rest of their father back before the twenty four hours run out. 

Photo Courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios.

“Onward” is the first original concept film produced by Pixar Studios since 2017, when they released the brillant, critically acclaimed, “Coco.” Since that November, the company has only put out sequels to their larger franchises, namely “Incredibles 2” and “Toy Story 4.” While both were hits with critics and at the box office, with “Toy Story” even winning Best Animated Feature at the Oscars this year, a feature film with an original storyline has been highly anticipated and long overdue.

Yet again, the reputation of the studio preceded itself and produced another film with stellar animation and storytelling. The film definitely has elements of Pixar’s classics, namely in its execution of the relationship between the two lead brothers—which along with carrying the narrative, packed an incredible emotional punch. However, besides this strong central bond and an effective conclusion, some other aspects of the film fell a little flat. In particular, the film’s secondary characters and exposition were not as brilliantly executed as the studio has shown audiences previously.  

Photo Courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios.

At the heart of the film is the theme of family and brotherly love, and creating relatable, emotional family pictures is where Pixar excels. The relationship between Ian and Barley, particularly towards the end of the film, is incredibly heartfelt. As evidenced by their previous films, whether that be comedically in “The Incredibles” or more tragically in “Up,” Pixar produces incredible family narratives that the audience can relate with. “Onward” is no exception. Based on creator Dan Scanlan’s own experience losing his father at age one, the personal connection to the film is strongly felt by the audience. Through these emotional films, the studio has also gained a reputation of making its audiences cry, and by the end of “Onward,” I had definitely shed a few tears.  

In animated features, vocal performances are vital to the story; when a character’s voice feels unnatural, the entire rhythm of the film is thrown off. Overall, Pratt’s performance really added to the goofy and reckless personality of Barley, while also capturing the character’s soft side in the film’s more emotional moments. The younger elven brother, Ian, undergoes a very strong character arc and starts the film as more nerdy and quiet. Holland, best known for his role as Peter Parker in Marvel’s Avenger franchise, has experience in this type of role, and as a result, I could not stop connecting his performance to that of his as the teenage hero. While his performance did not ruin the movie overall, it was definitely distracting.

Photo Courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios.

Additionally, when the film’s main focus is on the two strong leads, other characters have a hard time shining. In particular, the mother character (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) and the Manticore (Octavia Spencer) were not utilized effectively. They appeared underdeveloped and created an air of randomness whenever they featured on screen to further a secondary plot, in which they are trying to find the boys and warn them of a curse.

Despite its lower rank on the list of Pixar’s best films, “Onward” is still a worthwhile theater experience, and the film offers a well needed break from all the trauma currently happening in the world. It is clear that so much heart was put into this film, and there is nothing quite like a Pixar movie to make the audience feel like a kid again.