'Onward' (2020) A Magical Movie Review

Updated on April 9, 2020

I Guess There’s A Bright Spot

So, pretty much anyone reading this in April of the year 2020 is aware that the world is going through a bit of a pandemic that has resulted in practically a global quarantine. To the mutants that will evolve from this apocalypse, that means this is when sh*t went bad. However, there does seem to be a light in the darkness… we get a great Pixar movie straight into our homes less than a month after its theatrical premiere. At least while the world is ending, we’ll get some fun and emotional entertainment going on the television too. In all seriousness, this was a fantastic movie that I had my own personal connection to that moved me deeply while also having an epic blast as well.

The Plot

In a magical world of elves, wizards, dragons, unicorns, and all things mystical, things have evolved technologically to where magic has grown to be a distant memory to society. In the mix, two elven brothers (Tom Holland & Chris Pratt) who lost their father very young are now presented a chance to bring their dad back for just one day. The two brothers must embark on a quest to find a magic stone in order to make the spell work and see their father again one last time.

My Story Time

Bear with me for a moment, fellow readers. Film is an artform that can get into territories that are very personal to the viewer, delve deep on an emotional level and evoke feelings not quite capable through other mediums. Onward has done that for me. A story about two youths getting a chance of a lifetime to reconnect with their deceased father resonated with me immensely because I too lost my father. Nearly five years ago now, my dad also died of a terrible disease (much like the brothers in the film). Since then I felt much of the same feelings our two lead characters experience; holding onto fading memories, struggling to remember certain details of who he was, trying to figure out who I am and how I could be like my father and how I’m not, wondering what it would be like if I could just see him one more time, and remembering some upsetting moments towards the end of his life.

While I didn’t lose my father at such an early age as the leads in Onward, I still feel that I lost him too soon. This film helped me connect to a movie in a more therapeutic way than the typical entertainment. Helped me push through the vague clout that blocked precious memories of my dad for at least a moment. Just a moment. A moment is all I could ask for though. It was a beautiful experience for me that I don’t believe I will ever have again, but that’s okay. I had a brief moment to remember good times with my father all because of the emotions this film elicit for myself. With that said, I simply wanted to say thank you to writer/director Dan Scanlon for bringing this story to the public. I think this might be one of my new favorites under Pixar’s belt because I was able to connect on an incredibly personal level while also still getting all the excitement and enjoyment out of the colorful characters and imaginative spectacle. Onward is a treasure that I won’t soon forget.

This Is My Dad

Back to Less Sad Things

First of all, I apologize to anyone that may have found my words directly above to be a bit of a downer. I simply feel that as a critic I do need to explain my own take on the movie and elaborate on the emotional journey I’m put through instead of exclusively describing the movie like, “it’s good/bad because of stuff and reasons” and that’s that. Last I checked, I’m human. I want that to be clear in all my writings. Anyways, let us move onto the rest of the picture!

Reverse ‘Up’

Remember how in Pixar’s Up, pretty much all the emotion was launched instantly within the opening minutes with a majorly dramatic sequence? Well, Onward pretty much is if all the fun and adventure was inserted before the waterworks scenes. And yes, this is yet another ‘journey’ film. A formula that has gone on with Pixar studios since the very first Toy Story; a couple characters get themselves lost or on this huge quest where they form a bond and learn to work together while also discovering a little about themselves until they finally make their way home. It’s probably been the story base for 95% of Pixar’s cinematic lineup now. When it works, it works. It works in Onward in my opinion, especially since a ‘sword and fantasy’ type tale usually makes for the best companion with a journey’s structure.

It’s Like ‘Bright’, But Good.

Here we go again… Does anyone remember the movie Bright? Went direct-to-Netflix. It starred Will Smith as a cop and his partner was an orc, played by Joel Edgerton. The premise was taking the idea of a mystical land of fairytales meets our own modern reality. Everyone at the time was declaring it as the worst movie ever. It wasn’t. Well Onward seems to have taken that premise and said, “What if we made a story that was actually fun and cool?” Seemed like the plan worked because this movie is extremely fun and cool. I truly did enjoy how the writers established a familiar magical realm that likely everyone would recognize in some way, then evolved it in a manner that makes sense and is parallel to the real world.

The mixing of magic and technology is not necessarily anything new or original, but how this idea is executed here makes for some unique world building. The environments always feel as though it could very well be taking place in our reality, until we realize that the inhabitants are all blue or the architecture is ever so slightly medieval-esque or there so happens to be two moons in the sky. There are subtleties to every detail of the environments that provide weight and legitimacy to this feeling like a functioning advancement of what a fairytale world could progress into. Never giving too much leeway to one or the other side, always striking a solid balance between both elements of reality and fantasy.

Visually speaking, this film seems painstakingly mapped out as we spend the first act mostly in the hybrid combination where modern times have relatively overwhelmed the mystical quality of the world, then as we enter the second act we begin witnessing the new world peeling back from the old to see an epic fantasy aesthetic spring to life. Reaching the third act we get a satisfying conflict between both worlds clashing to the bitter end, but ultimately finding a sweet middle ground. There was a terrific amount of thought and effort implemented into creating this world and it truly shines.

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The Brothers

It’s a strange place I find myself in when I prepare to describe our leads Ian and Barely, played respectively by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt. What I mean by “strange” is somehow I find them to technically be nothing new in terms of character writing, yet surprisingly a breath of fresh air as I couldn’t get enough of their kinship together. They’re brothers, one is timid and shy while the other is impulsive and bold; right away we can tell what their chemistry will be like and the banters that they will most likely get into. We know one brother is going to be more straight laced while the other might be a bit of a wild card. However, these characters shine because of a few reasons. The first reason being how the script plays with the standard relationship of the straight-man character tagging along with the buffoon on an adventure, both of these characters are written with souls. Largely thanks due to the premise of the picture being such a personal journey, we get a deep sense of how much these two care about each other as well as the situation they find themselves in while also providing plenty of the wacky fun that comes with the territory of their contrasting archetypes.

Barley/Chris Pratt
Barley/Chris Pratt

Secondly, the “screw up” (Barley/Chris Pratt) isn’t really all that much of a screw up. Yeah, on the surface it may seem that way, but when we really break it down it seems that it all amounts to the occasional bad luck and mostly misunderstandings from other characters. It’s easy to assume that this is a doofus that fumbles at every turn, but the movie addresses that honestly no one actually gives him a chance to prove he’s capable of handling more than he’s trusted with. In fact, the majority of the screw ups occurring in the film are a result of his brother Ian jumping to conclusions that Barely will mess things up so Ian reacts unwisely under the pressure. Personally, I loved that the character growth comes from mostly everyone around Barely instead of the typical arc of this immature guy simply needing to grow up. This time around, the “fool character” falls majorly in the right while everyone else is pretty much in the wrong. Barely helps the other characters realize that they’ve somewhat forgotten their heritage and because of this they are able to grow by reclaiming that old magic they left behind in their world.

Plus with Chris Pratt’s childlike charm, infectious energy, and fantastically funny line delivery; Barely is probably my favorite Pixar character ever created. He’s a big dork, but also cool in the same way Pratt himself balances the two modes. I’ve always found Chris Pratt to be a remarkable talent, ever since my family and I first discovered the actor on the television show Everwood. That’s right, Everwood. Anyone remember that show? Starred Treat Williams; guy from The Substitute 2: School’s Out, Substitute 3: Winner Takes All, and Substitute 4: Failure Is Not an Option. Not Substitute 1 though, that was Tom Berenger, he subbed that day. Also had the main kid from Small Soldiers, the one guy who played Abraham Lincoln after Daniel Day-Lewis, chick who’s now a doctor on the current hit TV show The Resident (Also known as ER 9), the postpartum depression mom from Mom’s Night Out, and that one guy who played Starlord. Okay, I’ve slightly gotten off track here. The point is that Chris Pratt has been incredible bringing together goofiness and heartfelt drama for decades now, I enjoy the hell out of the man every time I see a new picture of his and I think the character of Barely is one of his shining achievements as he brings a tremendous amount of the humanity seen here.

Seriously, Does Anyone Remember Everwood? I Do!

Ian/Tom Holland
Ian/Tom Holland

Seems as of late, Tom Holland is making a reprisal of sorts to the world of voice acting again. A couple of Holland’s earliest roles were actually through vocal work. Now he’s doing it in a bit more of an official capacity under the titles Spies in Disguise, Dolittle, and now Onward. While I did enjoy his performance in Spies in Disguise, I have to admit that it was clearly Holland simply doing his American accent again. In Onward, while it’s not a drastic change of voice, he does at least make an effort to manipulate his tone and inflections just enough to make a difference. I don’t simply hear Peter Parker all over again, this time around I hear a different character. Not to say his Peter Parker voice is bad by any means, it’s not, but I don’t want to hear that for every role he’s in if he intends on continuing the vocal work for animation. Onward seems to be a bit of a promise that he takes the medium seriously and will create a character from the ground up through his voice alone. Which is exciting for me.

The Ending WITHOUT SPOILERS

PS: They spend about 80% of the movie with the legs of their father.
PS: They spend about 80% of the movie with the legs of their father.

I promise not to spoil anything about the ending, pinky swear! With that said, I do want to acknowledge how much I respect this film for not pulling any punches or copping out in order to have a more cheerful ending. No, I’m not necessarily saying that this has a bleak ending either. What I’m saying is that the story establishes one simple rule that these boys will only have a chance to spend 24 hours with their father and they stick to that rule. There’s no last minute, well it turns out the spell lasts forever or anything like that. The movie sticks to its guns and it is a gut punch, especially when we do get to the end of the boys’ journey. It’s emotional and intelligently crafted in the morals showing a passing of the torch, if you will. The maturity of the story remains true and doesn’t compromise at all, which is refreshing in the grand slew of family pictures that only care to “make the audience happy” in cynical fashion. Pixar has always been great about that and they proceed to impress me.

The Look

Is there even a person on this planet who would disagree that a Pixar film’s animation quality is always great? Well, certainly some trolls that notice a pebble out of place or something I’m sure. Other than that, I think the matter is unanimous that Pixar’s animation gets more and more gorgeous with each passing project. Even when it comes to a Pixar flick I might not much care for, the animation and visual aesthetic is always stunning. Every muscle, every hair, every cloud, every move, every particle of dirt and water, every inch of every frame has such beautiful dedication to the craft that it is beyond mind blowing. So I must ask… does this company let their employees sleep? To turn out such unbelievable animation and visual effects for every single feature to be released every year, sometimes more than one any given year, it’s incredible and possibly also taking advantage of workman laws. Someone please check into this situation, thank you. All joking aside, I hope the team is proud of Onward because this, visually speaking, is their best looking picture since Coco in my opinion.

My One Complaint

Not going to lie, the one criticism I have is beyond one of my most petty gripes I have ever had with a movie and really isn’t even that much of a negative. More so a personal curiosity. With that said, I have to ask… Why the hell wasn’t John Ratzenberger the voice of the centaur cop named Colt Bronco? Do you know how easy casting that would have and should have been?! The character’s personality and facial expressions practically scream Ratzenberger! So why in the world wasn’t he cast as the doofy centaur cop with a heart of gold? And don’t give me any crap about him not being available because he’s literally in the movie! For some reason cast as a random construction worker that I honestly have no recollection of even hearing him speak, but IMDb says it was him. Therefore, he was available and should have been centaur cop, dammit! Alright, alright, alright. Weird rant over.

Why wasn't this Ratzenberger?!
Why wasn't this Ratzenberger?!

Overall

Onward is a great kids/family movie with something for everyone to enjoy. Yes, there are heavy and emotional themes. Like practically any other Pixar flick though, the themes are implemented intelligently into all the fun adventure and wacky shenanigans. The film respects its audience and isn’t afraid to get into territory addressing the circle of life while still being a joyous ride with lovable characters and awesome visuals to boot. There’s funny jokes, cool magic, lively action, obsessive attention to detail, and plenty of heart to spare. If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, then I guess you’ve never liked a Pixar movie in your life… Which frightens me.

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That’s All Folks!

Onward… What did you think about it? Like or dislike? Agree or disagree? Wonder what the direct-to-video knockoff Homeward is like? Ask and I just might find out for myself… Comment down below and let me know! Also, if you so happened to have enjoyed my review then please do me a favor and share this article around the social media world. Thank you all so much for reading and have yourselves a magical day!

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    © 2020 John Plocar

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