[Oscar Madness Monday] Onward (2020)

Director: Dan Scanlon
Cast: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer
Screenplay: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin
102 mins. Rated PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Animated Feature Film

Onward has a notable distinction as being one of the first films heavily impacted by the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic, a piece of history that has changed cinema and the theatrical experience for years to come (and make no mistake, its effect on cinema is not the most important effect of the pandemic, but it is notable that this event has and will change the landscape). It had a release date, it met said date, and then it underperformed. I skipped the early screening due to the mounting concern that this virus might be hitting the US any day, and I only ended up going to the theater once more before the shutdown officially took place (I was concerned that it may have been my last chance to see a movie in the theater for some time, a notion I ended up being right about), and it wasn’t for Onward. Onward’s under-performance should forever be met with an asterisk and an explanation for why it seemed to fail, but time tends to smooth out the details and forget the context. Future generations will likely see this film as an underperforming Pixar film, a rarity for the company, and something that I was sad to have missed in theaters. Barring the Cars franchise, I like most of the Pixar slate, and I really wanted to see Onward after catching the trailer, and even though the film is overshadowed by the superior Soul (the other 2020 Pixar film), I still found the story to be heartfelt and the adventure enjoyable enough.

Onward is set in a fantasy world that has seemingly lost its magic. Technology has replaced mystical forces here, and the world has adapted. Unicorns are feral creatures that rummage through garbage cans, pixies are now part of motorcycle gangs, and the remnants of what came before are now a fantasy role-playing game. Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Cherry), a high-school age elf dealing with a massive confidence issue, lives in New Mushroomton with his mother and brother. Ian never met his father, Wilden, who passed away just before his birth, but on his sixteenth birthday, his mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Drefus, Downhill, TV’s Seinfeld) gives him a gift from his father, a magical staff capable of bringing his dad back to life for one day. When the spell is stopped midway, Ian and his brother, Barley (Chris Pratt, The Lego Movie, TV’s Parks & Recreation), are left with only the bottom half of their father. Now, on a race against the clock, these two brothers must embark upon a mythical quest to complete the spell and see their father before the day is up.

It’s interesting that Pixar has never taken on high-fantasy before. The closest they’ve gotten is Brave, a film with fantastical elements but never to the extent that Onward gets. I really enjoyed this world that director/co-writer Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) has given us. There is a genuinely interesting world that’s been created for this film with a level of meticulous detail that Pixar is known for. Scanlon showcases a love for all sorts of fantastical elements including iconic references to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Gygax’s Dungeons & Dragons, and it never feels like a cheap shot or dunking on the accomplishments of these creators in the fantasy genre. If anything, Scanlon goes at these elements with a Mel Brooks-ian eye for having fun with the material while showing respect to it.

Within the confines of that unique and enjoyable world-building, I did like what Scanlon and his co-writers were going for with the familial story of these two brothers. This is a pretty heady little movie with an emotional punch that I expected and was still surprised by. What I really like about the quest is how it showcases for these two characters what is most important following the immense loss of a father figure, and it also doesn’t exactly go where I expected it, offering a gut punch in the film’s third act that strengthens the movie and ends it on a captivating and perhaps controversial note.

The journey in getting to that captivating finish, however, is a little simplistic and paint-by-numbers. There were many plot points in this film that I could see coming from miles away, a lot of setups that have easy payoffs, and a lot of character beats that I was expecting. That’s not to fault the film for trying, but outside of its finale, I was not surprised by anything in the journey of the heroes. There’s fun to be had, no doubt, and I don’t want to compare it to other Pixar films but I’ll say that so often recently, I have found myself shocked by many of the Pixar storylines (I’m looking at you, Coco), and their willingness to play with expectations, and though the film ends strong, I just feel like so many of the journey plot beats feel like unused Shrek story beats. In that way, the film is extremely accessible but, at times, a bit too easy and perhaps forgettable.

Onward feels like a gateway fantasy film that will likely convert non-fantasy children to this kind of storytelling. There’s a definite love for the genre on display here, and a genuine and compelling emotional work for its characters here, even if the film’s plotting feels a little too easy and expected throughout. Onward ends on a beautiful and risky note that will likely allow audiences to wipe away their tears and really think on the film’s message for some time after, though the bulk of the middle of it is forgettable. Tom Holland and Chris Pratt have some nice vocal talents for a film like this, and Onward comes with a recommendation from this film fan.

3.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

For my review of Dan Scanlon’s Monsters University, click here.

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