Onward review – a sweetly funny and engrossing animated adventure

February 21, 2020 (Last updated: March 9, 2020)
M.N. Miller 0
Film, Film Reviews


Onward is a sweetly funny and engrossing animated adventure about the nature of fathers and sons.

Pixar, for me anyway, has been the gold standard for animated films since the second Toy Story. Almost every one of their films hit the perfect balance of beautiful animation, a sense of overall fun, and just the right note of emotional depth that resonates then ties everything all together. The Toy Story series, Up, Inside Out, Wall-E, The Incredibles, and Monsters Inc. remain the upper tier of Pixar classics. Onward has (most) of the right stuff, is certainly better than the Cars series or Brave, and belongs on the shelf with those upper-echelon films which falling just short of their lofty heights.

Onward is set in, well, a magical world where the citizens used to have supernatural powers and a Grand Wizard was on every corner (well, maybe not). Two teenage brothers, Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt), receive a wizard’s staff, which was a prearranged gift from their father who died before Ian was born and really too young for Barley to remember him; in fact, Ian has three good memories of his Dad. The Staff comes with a spell (please note — never buy a Staff without one) that will bring the patriarch of the family back to life for only a day so their sons can meet him. Of course, when they utilize the expiring mojo, something goes wrong, and they end up with just their father’s lower half (and appear to be clothed with “skinny” pants to boot) They then must go on a “quest” to complete the spell to see their father before their time is up.

Onward was written and directed by Dan Scanlon, whose previous credits include the unfairly criticized Monster’s University. His new film was inspired by his own family; his father passed away before he was born. There is no videotape of his Dad, just an audio one of him simply saying “Hello” and “Good-bye.” The inspiration for this is heartbreaking, to begin with, and it takes a while to hit its stride of breaking free from other conventional Pixar setups and stock characters if you are a fan of the studios. When the boys get on the road and meet a biker-gang full of pink feminist pixies, is when the story moves, uh, onward, and begins to fly.

The voice cast is always a highlight of many Pixar films. Pratt and Holland do have great chemistry (for some reason, while watching an interview of these two this week, all I could think of was whether if Tom Holland got angry and turned into the Hulk it would look something like Pratt). Julia Louise-Dreyfuss (Seinfeld, Veep, and making up here for Downhill) was an inspired choice to play their mother, Laurel. I also love the casting of a long-time supporting sitcom actor Mel Rodriguez (Running Wilde, Community) as police officer Colt Bronco. Of course, no Pixar film is complete without our favorite studio player, John Ratzenberger, who plays construction worker Felix.

Onward, for me, doesn’t have the same gravitas as other films from the studio. The big reason is seemingly the way it lifts scenes or gives nods to other films like Indiana Jones and The Smurfs (when they enter a cave, I swear there is a giant petroglyph of Papa Smurf); so much so, I’m wondering if that wasn’t homages to Scanlon’s childhood with his brother. They are there, and obvious for anyone who is a casual film buff, with that lack of originality to move the film along limiting its ceiling for true greatness.

However, Scanlon’s film may fall short of the studio’s most famed efforts in its filmography, but it could be a classic in time. You have to admire its lightly funny screenplay that’s far from overt as many animated films go. You eventually end up feeling invested more in the two main characters’ adventure as they talk more and more about what it would mean to see their father again, and how heart-rending it is when that void remains unfilled.

Overall, Onward is a sweetly funny and engrossing animated adventure. Scanlon’s screenplay captures endearing themes of fathers and sons, deep regret, and second chances that are universal for everyone.

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