Allstar / Disney / Pixar

‘Onward’ never figures out what it wants to be


Pixar is back with their first entirely original film in some years, mixing the fantasy genre with their trademark wit and heart. But does Onward actually represent a step forward for the company, offering a new property that stands up there with their best pictures? Probably not, sadly, but that’s a huge bar to reach, and Onward is so frequently within touching distance of it.

Long ago, the world was full of magic – but, as it became easier to use electricity and modern conveniences, the magic simply went away. On his sixteenth birthday, young elf Ian (Tom Holland) and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) receive a gift from their late father – a wizard staff, and a spell that enables him to return to the land of the living for one day in order to see how much they’ve grown. Ian, who never met his father, attempts some magic, but the spell doesn’t go quite as intended. The brothers embark on a quest in order to fully complete the spell so they can spend a bit of time with their father before he vanishes forever.

I enjoyed all of the constituent parts, but I wish that they meshed together a bit better

It took me a lot of time to get into Onward (in part due to my expectations being lowered by the underwhelming Simpsons short that preceded it), and I think that’s because it never really figures out what kind of film it wants to be. We begin with a comedy in which the world is our world with fantasy flourishes, and then it offers a subversion of the fantasy RPG quests. And then there are also the customary Pixar emotional beats – I think that the emotional arc here is one of Pixar’s most complex, and I’m not ashamed to say that it really reduced me to tears. I enjoyed all of the constituent parts, but I wish that they meshed together a bit better.

However, those individual parts are well worth the price of entry. The funny aspects are very funny, with a chase sequence on a motorway one of the most comedic and visually-inventive parts of the film. As a Pixar film, it goes without saying that Onward looks beautiful – even if it doesn’t make the most of its fantasy world narrative-wise, the animators clearly loved bringing it to life, with beanstalk-filled plains and a bottomless canyon two of the impressive sights. Much though I wish the fantasy world actually felt more integrated, rather than just a backdrop for a series of sight gags, it’s impossible to deny how stunning it all is.

Onward is a good film, but it’s a good film from a studio that continually pours out great ones

The film is principally a two-parter, and both Holland and Pratt share a fun chemistry (and one that will feel particularly familiar to any fans of the MCU). Holland is shy and unsure of himself, while Pratt dials up the enthusiasm as the slacker Barley, and that their bond really feels brotherly helps sell the emotional thrust of the narrative. There’s a bit of forced conflict that stems from what I thought was an entirely reasonable observation, but the earnestness means it doesn’t grate as much as it could. The rest of the cast get surprisingly little to do – Julia-Louis Dreyfus plays the brothers’ mum and Octavia Spencer appears as the fabled Manticore, the two of whom embark on a quest of their own, but the film is predominantly Ian and Barley’s.

Onward is a good film, but it’s a good film from a studio that continually pours out great ones. It’s fun and it’s touching and it ticks all of the Pixar boxes, but it’s really not as resonant or memorable as the studio’s best, and that’s a real shame. On its own, though, Onward is a charming and inventive film and a breezy way to spend two hours – just embrace the magic, and you’ll have a fun time.

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