Onward (2020) Review

WE’RE GOING ON A QUEST!


 

Pixar Studios has become the premiere powerhouse animated studio for nearly the past twenty-five years; producing some of the more memorable and beloved animated feature films that have seeing a theatrical release. While other studios have indeed produced hits (i.e. DreamWorks, Illumination Entertainment, Blu Sky, Warner Bros Animation, etc.), Pixar, a subsidiary company underneath the Walt Disney Studios banner, has capitalized on being the leading studio of children’s animated feature films; utilizing the bright and color world of cartoon storytelling to be made for the young audience, but finds a way into the hearts of older viewers; sparking strong themes of family, childhood, love, life, and difference of opinions. Some of their films, including Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc, Up, Inside Out, and Coco have certainly demonstrated this notion as well as strong family friendly films of quality stock such as Cars and The Incredibles. Now, after the successful box office of 2019’s Toy Story 4, Pixar Animation Studios (as well as Walt Disney Studios) and director Dan Scanlon present their 22nd animated feature with the movie Onward. Does this latest film stand tall and proud in Pixar’s illustrious animated library or does it fail to met the high standards from the studio’s signature pedigree of children’s entertainment?

THE STORY


The fantasy realm of New Mushroomton was filled with magic; bringing help and excitement to those in need of it, but that convenience has gradually removed that particular mystical need for modernized technology. Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), an awkward and painfully shy elf, welcomes his 16th birthday with his caring mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), an earnest guy who is obsessed with fantasy board games and the mystical past. Long ago, the boys lost their father, Wilden (Kyle Bornheimer), but Laurel presents a special gift for the duo, revealing a magical staff that her late husband prepared for his sons. The staff has a Phoenix Gem attached, with instructions to use a spell that permits Wilden to return to life for a single day….to spend time with Ian and Barley. Unfortunately, Ian, the magically inclined one, doesn’t have much practice with the arcane arts, only conjuring up the lower half of Wilden’s body. Face with one day to make thins right, Ian and Barley takes off on a quest to navigate the fantasy world and find a new Phoenix gem before time runs out. However, their journey together will test the brothers; facing various threats on their mission (and each other) in hopes to reconnect with their father.

THE GOOD / THE BAD


It goes without saying that when a Pixar movie gets released, there is reason to het excited for. As mentioned, (but it’s almost common knowledge), Pixar Studios have certainly become the “leading” animation studio for a better part more of two decades. I certainly grew up with their movies, with the original 1995 Toy Story capturing my ten-year-old attention with its then state-of-the-art CGI animation and memorable characters. After that, I remember seeing the change in Disney’s releases (the latter half of their “Renaissance Era”) and the rise of Pixar’s animated features, with Pixar becoming the more dominant powerhouse than its parent company. Much like how Disney had their signature style of princesses, musical songs, and colorful animal sidekicks, I love how Pixar has their own personal signature; mixing ever stunning 3D animation and wholesome storytelling together in way that never undermines their quality of cinematic filmmaking as well as well-rounded entertainment for all. Plus, the tender themes and message that many of their theatrical releases promote are highly valuable and indeed more memorable than any other children’s cartoon movies out there. Some of my personal favorite Pixar releases have Toy Story 3, Monsters Inc, Inside Out, Incredibles, Coco, and Finding Nemo. That being said, Pixar certainly has had one or two missteps along the way, with such movies like Cars 2 in 2011 and The Good Dinosaur in 2015, which are, more or less, considered the “black sheep” of the Pixar category. In addition, I personally think that Pixar relies too heavily on trying to expand upon its already established as brand / series (i.e. Toy Story, Cars, Incredibles, etc.) and needs to focus a bit more creating original content. However, that’s a minor quibble. In the end, Pixar Animation Studios still continues to be one of the premiere animated studios out there and has no sign of stopping anytime soon. And that’s a good thing!

This brings me to talking about Onward, a 2020 fantasy animated adventure and the latest endeavor from Pixar. As I mentioned, every time Pixar releases a new movie… there’s reason to get excited about it, especially with majority of their releases bring a sense of anticipation and excitement towards its pre-release (and for good reason). Of course, I remember hearing a few snippets here and there when the movie was announced (I think during one of their D23 Expo), with the project title “Onward” was released with the premise surrounding some type of quest in a fantasy world. Though who know me know that I do love fantasy, so I already down to see this movie. Then the film released the subsequent movie trailers throughout the past several months and the footage shown definitely interested. As I mentioned, it was a Pixar released and I got the feeling (from the movie trailers alone) that there was gonna be plenty of heartfelt moments that be surely tug on my heartstrings. Plus, the film featured Tom Holland and Chris Pratt in the lead roles….and I love both of them. Thus, I was pretty excited to see Onward as I placed the movie on my #4 on my Top 15 Most Anticipated Films of 2020. Fortunately, I was able to see the movie before the movie theater chains closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but, due to my work, I wasn’t able to write my review of the film for a few weeks. Now, I finally free time, and have the opportunity to share my thoughts on the 22nd Pixar feature. And what did I think of it? I liked it. Despite a few problems with it, Onward is steadfast, fun, and entertaining collection to Pixar’s popular library that has plenty of humor, heart, and charm throughout. It isn’t the strongest Pixar movie, but it is still a solid Pixar endeavor. And yes, I’ve already purchased Onward as part of the early VOD format….if that’s a clear indication how stance on this movie.

Onward is directed by Dan Scanlon, whose previous works include several miscellaneous roles on various Pixar projects (i.e. senior creative team and additional screenplay material) such as Brave, Cars, and Incredibles 2 as well as directing Monsters University. Given his background with working with the studio, Scanlon seems like a fine choice in directing Onward; approaching the film with Pixar’s signature delight of animated fun and sweet and touching sincerity. Of course, the movie isn’t quite as hard-hitting as some other Pixar movies, but Scanlon still provides plenty of fantastical elements (no pun intended) to bring to the film’s proceedings and to the entertainment pedigree standards of Pixar releases. One of the most unique aspect that Scanlon does with Onward is the overall turning the fantasy aspects and nuances on its head; taking the premise from a classically medieval to modern day. As I said, I love everything fantasy. From its tropes and clichés to everything of knights, dragons, faraway kingdom, and mythical beasts / creatures. Thus, Scanlon plays around with that idea; populating the feature’s world with plenty of fantastical creatures and having the modernization touches and polish to this once pseudo-medieval fantasy realm. Scanlon scatters plenty of site gags and references to the fantasy genre (i.e. unicorns acting as wild / ravenous raccoons). Plus, the usage of having a fun nerdy character like Barely liking a Dungeons & Dragons board game fanboy (Quest of Yore) and utilizing that in the film’s narrative. I, for one, have never played a D&D game, but I do love how the nuances are incorporated into the character of Barley of which I do appreciate Scanlon creative decision.

Scanlon also does a good job in creating something a little bit different from the standard Pixar endeavor. Yes, I know that the main story is quite a straightforward road trip premise that isn’t original, but it is still something a bit different from Pixar to use a plot device and (again) I do like how Onward is a new animated tale rather than the studio building on its already existing brands / series. So, even if you don’t care as much for Onward than other Pixar endeavors, a viewer (at the very least) has to appreciate Scanlon’s work for creating a new animated story with new characters to fall in love with (more on that below). In addition, Scanlon keeps the feature having a steady pace for the entire; never really lagging nor overextending it’s with unnecessary side stories.

In the writing department, Onward’s script handling is handled by several individuals, including Scanlon as well as Keith Bunin and Jason Headley, which has plenty of heart and humor throughout the film’s story. As to be expected, Pixar’s signature touch is ever presence. It’s not as strong as previous installments, but isn’t as overwrought emotional manipulative as The Good Dinosaur was (you definitely could see the “nuts and bolts” in that movie). As mentioned, Onward’s story is pretty straightforward and direct, but still delves into some pretty strong themes and underlining messages. Of course, the main story thread of Ian and Barkley questing for a chance to seeing their late father again is definitely heartfelt and certainly acts as the beating heart of the feature, but its also the tale of the Lightfoot brothers and their brotherly love towards one another (be through the good times and the bad). That’s definitely a crystal-clear reflection to anyone who has grown up with a brother or sister or any type of siblings, the struggles and comradery that you have with them. Plus, Pixar utilizes the commonly used themes of believing in one-self in Ian’s character in a bit of a “coming of age” angle. In addition, the movie’s script touches upon certain topical themes, including how modern convivences have made things easier for people (something akin to Wall-E’s theme) as well as looking back to past and honoring (something like “looking to the past, head towards the future) vibe and the loss of something, with Onward discussing how magic faded and forgotten.

In terms of presentation, Onward continues Pixar’s on-going trend of being one of the more premiere animated studios within its overall animation style and design and is definitely a true highlight of the feature’s visual appeal. The movie (from start to finish) looks crisp, colorful, and wonderful animated with the some of the latest 3D animation that the studio has to offer. Thus, Onward has such an imaginative feeling to that has a combination both reality and fantasy aesthetics; creating a modern suburban landscape fictional world that’s populate with fairy tale / mystical creatures of old. Again, I’m just a fantasy nerd, so I love this aspect as all the backdrop settings, character designs, and color pallets are very vivid and intricately detailed…. very much pleasing to the eye as well as making the film’s modern fantasy world very believable and functional. Thus, all the film’s “behind the scenes” visual computer wizardry techs as well as Bert Berry (art direction), Noah Klocek (production design), and Sharon Callahan and Adam Habib (cinematography) are well-represented and definitely aid in the visual appeal in the film. Lastly, the film’s score, which was composed by Jeff and Mychael Danna, delivers a top-notch musical composition; providing plenty of melodic sweeps and adventurous moments that have plenty of memorable moments (be it grandiose / foreboding or even tender soft dialogue scenes.

There are a few problems that I did notice while watching Onward that, while not necessarily disappointing and / or completely derail the feature from being enjoyable, do hold the feature back from reaching the lofty high expectations that the many have for this latest Pixar flick. And there lies the first problem, which is Onward, despite the positives, just doesn’t quite reach standard of some of Pixar’s best. As mentioned in my opening paragraph, Pixar has certainly become a powerhouse juggernaut of theatrical cartoon motion picture for quite some time; producing big hits like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Inside Out, and Coco just to name a few. In truth, as I said earlier, Pixar has created the high standards for cartoon movies of late by interjecting plenty of their signature heart and humor to these particular films that are usually meant for kids of all ages, but have an appeal to all. With that in mind, Onward does indeed have the studio’s classic signature style of emotional drama, witty humor, and likeable characters, but the film doesn’t exceed or try to break the certain mold held up by its predecessors. Scanlon makes the film settle into a routine-esque groove (and a nice one at that) of which the movie follows from onset to conclusion that, while it works, can’t either overcome nor outshine some of Pixar’s beloved past installments. Thus, for better or worse, Onward is still a great animated film, but it is certainly not the brightest one to come from this illustrious studio. Personally, I kind of figured that when I went into the movie to beginning with, so it didn’t bother me as much. Still, I a cautionary reminder to some viewers out there.

Contributing to that fact is the film’s story. Yes, I did state that I did love the whole fantasy quest premise and the journey that goes along, but I felt that the film could’ve added a little more to it. With the movie clocking in at around one hour and forty-two minutes (102 minutes), the movie relatively short, which can be seeing as both good and bad (again, the movie does have a good pacing throughout). That being said, the movie could’ve added one or two more side adventures for Ian and Barkley to encounter; adding an additional ten or so minutes to the feature as well as expanding upon certain areas in this fantasy realm, which I would’ve liked to see. In addition to that, the base of the film’s story is rather simplistic in nature (a classic road trip feeling) and, while the narrative deals with plenty of heartfelt moments and comedic bits, its feels like there could’ve been a bit more substance added. Thus, I felt that the script handling could’ve been tweaked here and there in the creation process building; offering a bit more substance in selective parts of Onward’s story and adventure.

What definitely overlooks some of the criticisms is Onward’s voice cast, which is incredibly solid in all of various roles throughout the movie. In true Pixar fashion, the acting talents that have been assembled are truly top-notch and giving each respective character in such distinct and memorable vocals that help deliver in making them fun and enjoyable from onset to conclusion (no matter how big or small their roles are in the film). At the head of the pack in Onward’s cast are actors Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, who play the feature’s main protagonist elf characters of Ian and Barley Lightfoot. Holland, known for his roles in Spider-Man: Homecoming, Spies in Disguise, and The Impossible, is wonderfully casted as Ian, a nervous and shy character by nature that undergoes the biggest transformation story arc in the movie. Holland’s ability to generate nervous sounding voice is properly utilized in Ian and definitely aides in the overall likeability in his character. Likewise, Pratt, known for his roles in Guardians of the Galaxy, Magnificent Seven, and Jurassic World, is spot on with Barley’s loud, boisterous, and carefree lifestyle that’s obsessed with the past and the world’s D&D fantasy board game (Quest of Yore). He’s definitely a perfect casting choice; showcasing plenty of humorous lines with likeable choice, but demonstrating some heartfelt dialogue moments in Barley.

Additionally, both Holland and Pratt have worked together within the Marvel Cinematic Universe and have turned fine performances in their superhero counterpart characters (Guardians of the Galaxy and Spider-Man: Homecoming) and their brief interaction with each other in Avengers: Infinity War. Thus, there magnetic chemistry with each other is instantly there from the get-go in Onward; finding both talents easily sliding into Ian and Barley’s character quirks and personas effortlessly and in a fun way. Thus, the chemistry that they have with each other is clearly there and definitely helps sell the brother angle of the Lightfoot siblings. Definitely one of the best aspects of Onward.

Of the largely supporting characters in the movie, actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, known for her roles in Seinfeld, Enough Said, and Veep, gets a memorable turn as Ian and Barkley’s mom, Laurel Lightfoot. Louis-Dreyfus charisma and nurturing motherly sounding voice seems quite perfect for the role of Laurel, with the movie’s narrative giving her a small / lighthearted side-adventure for feature’s duration (running parallel to Ian and Barkley’s adventure). Alongside Laurel’s journey is the character of the Manticore, a once fearless adventurer and a soon-to-be fan favorite character of Onward, who is voiced by seasoned veteran actress Octavia Spencer. Known for her roles in Hidden Figures, The Help, and The Shack, Spencer has been considered a “respectable actress” by many for her character performance….and justly so; always bringing a certain type of gravitas quality to each one. Her portrayal of the Manticore, a great mythical beast is quite different, but Spencer’s loud and animated voice bring this behemoth of a character to life in a fun and sometimes hilarious way. Lastly, actor Mel Rodriguez, known for his roles in Overboard, Getting On, and The Last Man on Earth, is definitely a perfect match for the side character of Colt Bronco, a centaur police officer who is dating Laurel.

The rest of the cast, including actor Kyle Bornheimer (She’s Out of My League and Marriage Story) as Ian and Barkley’s late father, Wilden Lightfoot, actress Grey Griffin (The Book of Life and Unikitty!) as the leader of Pixie Duster Biker gang, Dewdrop, actress Tracy Ullman (The Tracy Ullman Show and Into the Woods) as pawn shop owner, Grecklin, and actresses Lena Waithe (Ready Player One and Westworld) and Ali Wong (Always Be My Maybe and Birds of Prey) as cyclops and faun police officers, Specter and Gore, make up the minor supporting players in Onward. While some of these characters might have one or two scenes in the movie, their voice work for their respective characters is still spot on and does provide well-placed / memorable voices to their on-screen characters….be it comedic, tender, or somewhere in-between. Plus, don’t forget to hear actor John Ratzenberger (Cheers and Toy Story) for his customary Pixar cameo-like voice appearance in Onward.

FINAL THOUGHTS


How far would you go for one more day together? Such a question is asked as Ian and Barley Lightfoot set out on an adventurous quest to see their late father in the movie Onward. Director Dan Scanlon latest film takes a simple journey tale of two brothers and molds into the Pixar signature cinematic endeavor with a combination fantasy nuances throughout; creating a worthy family friendly movie for all. While the film isn’t as strong as some of its more popular entries and could’ve been tweaked a little more in its development process, the end result is still highly enjoyable with a feature, especially thanks to the beautifully animation, interesting fantasy concept (love the D&D board game ideas), colorful characters, heartfelt story, and solid voice acting talents (most notable in Holland and Pratt). Personally, I liked this movie. Yes, it doesn’t quite match the same caliber level as Toy Story, Inside Out, or Coco, but it was still quite fun, entertaining, and endearing from start to finish. Again, I loved Holland and Pratt in the movie. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is definite “recommended” as it showcases plenty of the studio’s signature style and will please many viewers out there (young or old). Though I hardly doubt that a sequel will be greenlit by studio, it would be interesting to expand upon Onward’s fantasy realm in some format (I would be interested in exploring more of New Mushroomton and its past more). In the end, Onward may not be the strongest entry in Pixar’s catalogue of animated tales, but it still delivers on everything fans expect to see; a charming tale of magic, adventure, family, and brotherly love that will surely entertain the whole family.

4.0 Out of 5 (Recommended)

 

Released On: March 6th, 2020
Reviewed On: April 4th, 2020

Onward  is 102 minutes long and is rated PG for action / peril and some mild thematic elements

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