Onward ★★★★½

Few things should be more exciting to filmgoers everywhere than the prospect of a new IP from powerhouse animation studio Pixar. Even when they don’t reach the highs of Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., Inside Out, or Coco, they still produce near-classics like the money-printing, merchandise-monster Cars or the oft-overlooked, quiet, and visually stunning buddy-road-trip/adventure masterpiece The Good Dinosaur. Which is why it was so weird when Pixar released Onward earlier this year to little-to-no fanfare. For sure the coronavirus played a significant role in this as few audiences had the chance to see this in theaters, and then it was relegated solely to Disney+. But even still, the marketing didn’t do much for me – or seemingly others. I expected the same B-tier Pixar I got with recent outings like Finding Dory and toy Story 4. (To be clear, even B-tier Pixar movies are very good). I went into this thinking it would be some so-so brothers-adventure with some magical element, with characters voiced by Chris Pratt and Tom Holland. Maybe I hesitated because I feared that Chris Pratt would simply be playing yet another iteration of his made-to-be-memed and sorta-now-grating loveable yet clueless bro that he perfected on Parks & Recreation and made even more macho and bro-y as part of the Guardians of the Galaxy films. I was right on both counts: Pratt plays the same character as he always does, and it is a movie about brothers and magic. But I was wrong in one regard: this movie is awesome.

Onward is set in the town of New Mushroomton, a city that looks like it could be Anytown, USA with a public high school, highways, and suburban housing developments. The difference is that New Mushroomton is populated by magical creatures (elves, centaurs, satyrs, trolls, etc.) instead of humans. However, the film’s prologue tells us that all the world’s magic has long been forgotten. Just as science and modern medicine have lessened the need and reliance on religion and faith for many in our society today, so too did the invention of the lightbulb in Onward eliminate the need for wizards to cast spells to cast out darkness. So now the centaurs drive cars instead frolic the fields, monsters have sold out and allowed their once-scary visages to sold on T-shirts, mugs, and as mascots for restaurants, and once-sacred and magical fountains are being demolished to make way for new building developments. It’s not the most imaginative of Pixar settings, but it does effectively get across one of the film’s theme: not that we as Americans need to go back and embrace religion and faith, but that we should have a greater appreciation for sacred traditions of the past and recognize that newer is not always better. And, perhaps predictably, the world and the film it inhabits teach that the “magic” of life can never really be lost. It’s a message that is luckily never stressed too heavily and which forms a beautiful backdrop to the film’s main plot.

The plot, as mentioned, focuses on two elven brothers, and their single mother (their father died of an illness long, long ago – because this is a Disney movie and no one can be a hero without dead or missing parents!). The younger of the two, Ian (voiced by the MCU’s boyish Spider-Man, Tom Holland), has just turned sixteen and is as insecure, without confidence, and paralyzed by fear as any teenage boy who isn’t among the cool kids. The film’s so-so exposition portion largely focuses on showing us just how pathetic Ian is: in order to invite classmates to his house for a birthday, he has to write out talking points on his hands (predictably his hands become a bit sweaty). He more than anything wants to become the bold, confident man he hears his father once was, down to the point that he wears his father’s old sweatshirts and has a tear-jerking conversation with an old recording of his father’s voice.

On the other end of the spectrum is Ian’s older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), who kinda looks like Chris Farley is Chris Farley played D&D in high school. Barley’s also a social outcast and do-nothing who his Mom describes on being on “the longest gap year” between high school and college. But embraces his lonerism and is proud of who he is – much to the embarrassment of his brother. He’s in love with his world’s magical past, devoting his life to the film’s version of Dungeons & Dragons card game, which is based on “actual history,” i.e. the spells from his game are the same spells that wizards used to use. The two brothers are not so much at odds at the film’s start, but they aren’t particularly close.

What brings them together, and what propels the film from its sleepy start, is a present for Ian from his long-dead father: a magic wand and a spell that will allow Ian and Barley to see their father again. Firstly, they will have to go on a quest to find some MacGuffin to complete the spell. Secondly, they will only have 24 hours to complete the task or else lose the opportunity for ever. Thirdly, only Ian the Non-Confident and the Magic-Naïve, is able to work the wand. With these ground rules laid out, the movie proper begins, and it is a wonderful and expertly crafted tale.

The film’s story progression takes as much of a cue from recent RPG-video games (to which, of course D&D is the ultimate precursor) as from the classic mold of the “Hero’s Journey” that adventure tales from Lord of the Rings to Star Wars have followed. Following Barley and his knowledge of his D&D-like card game (like that episode of Spongebob where Mr. Krabs uses a board game’s map to find actual buried treasure), Ian and Barley will come up against a number of different of challenges on their journey, and under the guidance and training of the well-studied Barley, Ian “unlocks” more and more magical abilities. By the film’s end he is a full-blown wizard single-handedly fighting off a dragon. It’s a satisfying structure, with each challenge being often visually satisfying and exciting, not only strengthening Ian’s confidence, but also his relationship with his brother. Though in the classic buddy-road-trip film, there are as many challenges that will bring them together as threaten to tear them apart.

The beauty of this film is its ability to be three things at once 1) a fantastical adventure to save their father 2) a buddy-comedy for the two brothers and 3) a coming of age tale for Ian. All three share the limelight equally and no part (after the exposition) drags a bit. By far its strongest element, though, is its exploration of brotherhood/fatherhood. Ian and Barley are a joy to watch work together on screen, and their love for one another is clear and palpable. Even Pratt’s typical obnoxiousness is appropriately scaled down and made entirely loveable. There was never not a moment where I wasn’t rooting for the two. I would have been perfectly happy with providing the two with the predictably happy ending the movie sets itself up for and which a film from a lesser studio would have provided. But instead Pixar completely subverts my expectations in a beautiful way, giving me the ending I didn’t know I wanted, and which in the long run is the best for its characters and their development.

In sum, I was quite pleasantly surprised by Onward. The movie knows exactly what it wants to be, and it does so effectively. It teaches that fathers, especially the best fathers, don’t have to be the men who begot us. As I said, it’s not the most creative or inventive outing from Pixar and it’s just below the A-tier Pixar classics, but it really it too much to expect a masterpiece every single time. That being said, I would be surprised if there’s a better or more emotionally affecting animated movie to come out this year.