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Onward (2020)

My first post of the new year! Sorry for such the long hiatus. Between involvement in our school musical, Legally Blonde, working on my other writing projects (mainly one-act plays and short stories and some screenplays), and just the general grind of being a Junior, I haven’t had much time to blog. I hopefully in the future, I’ll have some time to do an update of some kind, but for now, let’s take a look at the latest Pixar film!

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐ ½ out of 5

Disney/Pixar’s Onward was Directed by Dan Scanlon and Written by Dan Scanlon, Jason Headly, and Keith Bunin. Onward tells the story of a world that was once full of magic, and creatures of all kinds (Elves, mermaids, centars) all lived in harmony. Overtime, however, magic fell out of favor for the convenience of modern technology until it became a thing of the past. Flash forward to Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) on Ian’s 16th birthday. It is on this day that their mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gives them a present from their long deceased father, which turns out to be a wizards staff and a spell explaining how he could be brought back for 24 hours. Seeing this as an opportunity to finally meet his father, Ian attempts to conjure his father using the staff, only to have it backfire and bring back his father as a pair of legs. Racing against the clock, cowardly Ian and his fearless magic loving brother go on a quest, risking their lives to bring back the rest of their father.

I should first preface by saying I wasn’t too thrilled about the film from the trailers. It seemed to have a very creative, bizarre plot and the voice cast was incredible, but I don’t think I was alone in feeling like the film didn’t feel like a Pixar movie the same way other more recent films like Inside Out and Coco do. Not only that, but I personally didn’t really connect with the subject matter. Likewise, between Monsters Inc. and Zootopia, the concept of putting a ‘fictional world into are own modern world,’ even with the twist this time of being fantasy creatures, is quiet a tired concept. While I cannot say this film is as good or as touching as the likes of Coco and Inside Out, I did really enjoy myself while watching it and would highly recommend it as modern fun, fantasy Pixar fare.

It shouldn’t come as a shock to most, but as usual with Pixar films, this one is absolutely gorgeous. There’s so much detail when it comes to things like the landscape, buildings, and other backgrounds. There’s also so much emotion and detail coming from the characters themselves. I also love the design of the creatures as well. While I do think a lot of designs are a little too familiar to films like Monsters Inc. (which is funny since this is from the same director as Monsters University), that’s not to take away too much of the film’s credit, as there is still so much variety in the character design, with each creature being very distinct in size, color, and defining features, even if they are of the same species. As usual with Pixar’s character design, you can tell what each character is like just by looking at them, and I think they did a pretty good job of blending the fairy tale creatures in with the modern day aesthetic or design (there’s also a really creative use of that in the third act), but more on that later.

Left: Fearless brother Barley (Chris Pratt), must comfort his younger, more hesitant brother Ian (Tom Holland), right, during their magical, yet dangerous, quest in “Onward”

The voice work, as you’d imagine, is quite amazing. While it could be a little distracting to hear celebrities like Chris Pratt and Tom Holland and get invested in them as two animated characters, they really did a great job and while it did take some getting used to (as a Marvel fan) I soon grew to love them as these roles. However, I think Octavia Spencer as the Manticore (this half Lion, half scorpion, winged creature) comes as one of the best stand out performances. She was so great as this extremely bizarre character. A once fearless warrior who holds the key to brothers Ian and Barley completing their quest, she’s now become this overworked restaurant owner who’s struggling to keep her business running smoothly (while also not getting in trouble). It’s such a bizarre but totally fun and at time hilarious character that Octavia Spencer totally became in her performance. I also love the bond that the Manticore and Ian and Barley’s mother formed over the course of the film. It was so fun and completely unexpected.

I mentioned before the blending of the fairy tale world with our own modern world, and I think they did a good job of that with the characters and character design, though I think where that and the world itself falters is that it feels a bit TOO familiar to our world. I think back to movies like Zootopia or Monsters Inc where a lot of the vehicles, doors, and other modern conveniences are suited to creatures of all shapes and sizes. There’s really none of that in Onward. Everything seems as it is in our world. To give you some examples, there’s this centaur police officer that struggles to get out of his car or sit down at a table, and a gang of Pixies that have to operate a normal, human sized motorcycle. Why wouldn’t there be pixie-sized mototcycles in this world, or vehicles for centaurs? Outside of, say, the houses and the creature designs, there’s not too much creativity put into the day to day objects and technology of this world. That’s not to say there isn’t (especially when Ian and Barley embark on their quest) I just feel like there was a tad more open to some more creative world designs.

During their, quest, Ian and Barley encounter the dangerous, and legendary Manticore (Octavia Spencer).

The movie’s main focus, however, is still there with the two brothers. I loved their contrasting personalities and the way they both conflicted with eachother and ultimately had to work together. Ian was much more timid and hesitant (both with magic and with his own confidence) but not in a way that felt too forced or unrealistic (I actually related to some of his efforts to fit in and be as confident as his father was). Barley, on the other hand, was much more self assured both in his bravery and with magic. He also provided a lot of fun comic relief to the journey and I think the film developed their conflict and ultimate resolution really well. Both brothers are very different and don’t always see eye to eye, but at the end of the day they really felt like brothers and I really enjoyed watching their relationship grow and develop.

If I had any complaints about the main story I had a bit of a hard time connecting to their main quest. I think it’s just because I personally never went through anything like this, but outside of my own personal connection to the ‘legs’ of the story (pun intended), the film does still do a good job getting us to connect to the main quest, though I did have a hard time connecting to the dad character. I think if we got a little more information about the father at the beginning I would have cared a little bit more about actually getting to meet him, rather than just caring about Ian getting to meet him. I think my biggest character complaint is with Barley though, as I never really felt for his character. Though he was very entertaining and had a fun personality and a compelling conflict with Ian, I never really felt like he grew or change all that much, it was mostly just other characters telling him what he is. I would have liked to see him maybe even for a second believe them and have a moment of inner conflict.

What I think really made this film a better than average Pixar film is the ending. I won’t give it away but it was really unexpected and quite heartwarming. It made the rest of the film really feel like more than what it was building up to and, like most great Pixar endings, was actually quite mature and introspective. Overall this was a really solid film, and I do think it’s a shame it didn’t do too well in theaters. If you have Disney+, I would say to give it a watch!

3 thoughts on “Onward (2020)

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