Pixar’s Onward: The Quest for Emotional Clarity

Two brothers go on a journey to find a magic stone that will allow them to see their dead father for one day.

SUMMARY (Spoiler-Free)

Once Upon A Time, there was magic in the world. Unfortunately, magic is really hard to use, so the world ended up picking science for all of their daily needs. Over time, magic pretty much faded from the world, even though it’s still populated by elves, pixies, centaurs, and manticores. In the “present,” Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) is a timid high-school elf who is regularly embarrassed by his hardcore role-player brother Barley (Chris Pratt). The pair lost their father (Kyle Bornheimer) to illness before Ian was born and are raised by their mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and her centaur boyfriend Colt (Mel Rodriguez). On Ian’s 16th birthday, he and Barley are given a gift left by their father, revealed to be a magical staff which contains a magical resurrection spell, allowing him to see the kids for 24 hours. Unfortunately, Barley can’t get the spell to work. Ian later tries, and succeeds, but Barley interrupts him halfway through and breaks the crystal which powers the spell, resulting in only their father’s legs being brought back. The two go on a quest to find another phoenix crystal in order to see their dad again, encountering pixie bikers (Grey Griffin), a manticore (Octavia Spencer), and a host of other fantasy characters.

Onward - 1Van
They also have a van named Guinevere, which is pretty awesome.

END SUMMARY

So, from the trailer, I thought this would be a crappy story set in an interesting world. The images of Chris Pratt summoning his brother for a quest seemed kind of generic, but the idea of a fantasy world which has survived into the modern age might have been fun. It turns out that I was completely wrong. The world that this movie is set in wasn’t that interesting, even though a literal suburban fantasy should be inherently fun. Unlike Zootopia, we don’t really get any feelings that this world has particularly adapted to the different species or cultures, or how those different groups interact. The closest we get is seeing how a team of pixies work together to operate a motorcycle and doors, but since nothing about the world is actually adapted to work with them, it diminishes the worldbuilding. Even the puns in the movie aren’t particularly clever or interesting. It was genuinely disappointing that the world wasn’t particularly good.

Onward - 2Pants
I mean, they also didn’t really use the half-father that well.

However, the story is amazingly solid once it gets going.

Okay, warning to anyone who wants to watch it, it takes a while to get started. Honestly, 30 minutes into the film, I was just waiting to walk out. Then, all of the sudden, the movie shifted and it actually became more about the two brothers and their connection than the world in which the movie is set. I know that Pixar is basically built on knowing how to create strong emotional moments, so it shouldn’t be surprising that there ended up being a number of them towards the middle and end of the film, but that doesn’t change the fact that they managed to make me really care about the characters. While you start the film kind of pitying Ian and finding Barley obnoxious, over time the characters both start to develop in ways that are surprising and even admirable as the story progresses. Moreover, the story’s events actually perfectly represent their growth. 

ONWARD
Their bonding is pretty great.

Then there’s the ending. I won’t spoil it, but this is among the strongest endings in a Pixar film because it represents more than a happy ending. It shows that there are actual consequences to things in the movie, that sacrifices have meaning, and that there aren’t always workarounds to make everything perfect. It really works well. 

Onward - 4Staff
And a character learning magic is pretty much always awesome.

I’d also add that watching Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s and Octavia Spencer’s characters interact is amazing. Laurel is a suburban mom who is trying to make sure her kids are safe and Corey, the Manticore, is a retired adventurer who “sold out” and is trying to remember her glory days. Their banter is naturally kind of funny because of the juxtaposition of their positions, but it gets funnier when they end up having to work as a team. 

Onward - 5Corey
Yes, she’s wearing flair.

Overall, it’s not the best Pixar film, but it’s not the worst either. If they’d somehow given the world the kind of qualities of wonder that it probably deserves, though, this would have been a heck of a story. If you see it, just be prepared for a bit of a slog at the opening, but I do think it got a lot better as it went. 

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

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