Pixar’s latest animated feature “Onward” hits theaters on March 6, but I was lucky enough to see the film this past Saturday. The film follows Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) Lightfoot, two elves in a modern version of mythological society. The brothers try to use magic to bring their late father back for one more day, but the spell goes awry and the pair is stuck with only the bottom half of their father. The two must then embark on a quest before the sun sets to have closure with their father. Pixar, as of late, has been pretty hit or miss for me. With the exception of “Inside Out” and “Coco,” Pixar films have been well made, yet unoriginal, or had ideas that just didn’t work. With “Onward,” I can definitely see what Pixar wanted to do with its core emotional journey, but the journey leading up to its strong emotional payoff is ultimately unsatisfying.
Starting with the positive, as always, the film is, without a doubt, made with care. The character designs are unique and creative, whether it be the main elves or different species in the background. The film has such a creative environment that the extensive character design helps to bring the world to life. The content of the world is also stunning. There are moments where cars driving on the highway or distant mountains feel like real film, not animation. The technology on display here is the most impressive work Pixar may have ever done.
The characters and story plotting is where the film loses me a little bit, as there are positives and negatives to take from each. For characters, I didn’t really care much for Ian, the key protagonist. I understood his reasoning for his journey, but there were times where he was unnecessarily rude to his brother during their travels. He often gets upset from the most minor inconveniences and that gets old fast. Similarly, I think Barley is too unfocused and obnoxious for no reason. They use Barley as the character who provides the most exposition, yet try to attach an emotional arc to him that never feels like something he really wants. The two main characters lack strong motivation, so when they act irrationally, it feels out of place because it feels like a character flaw rather than stress about their journey. Conversely, I think the Manticore (Octavia Spencer) has the strongest arc of the film as a mythical creature who has settled down to own a restaurant. Her arc is simply conveyed and is really effective in the end.
The plotting in “Onward” is also a bit strange. There are times, mostly in the second act, where the film loses the focus of the journey. It feels like an adventure for the sake of adventure instead of having a true meaning behind it. When the brothers have the burden of babysitting their dad’s legs, they have random side adventures that don’t result in the story progressing, and the film really drags. The first and third acts are prime Pixar storytelling, with tightly organized scenes and strong emotional payoff. The ending is exceptionally strong and is very subversive, especially for a movie aimed at children. I have one problem with the ending and it’s that it asks you to look at the entire film in a new way. Usually, a twist like this can be really fun and effective, like in “The Sixth Sense.” However, it is hard to look back on the film positively with this lens because most of the moments it wants you to acknowledge as emotionally resonant are bogged down with the brothers bickering. It’s a minor note for a one time watch, but I expect more from Pixar.
“Onward” is by no means a bad movie. It ranks toward the bottom of Pixar’s library for me solely because of how strong their films usually are. But, when you have a premise as potentially emotional and a world as unique as “Onward” does, the film starts to feel full of untapped potential. The ending moved me, but not nearly as much as other Pixar films have, or as much as “Onward” should have. I think it’s worth a watch because it is well made and the voice cast is effortlessly entertaining, but don’t go in expecting “Toy Story” or “Monsters Inc.”