Pixar’s reputation is well known and respected. They have dipped their toe into every genre except full on fantasy. Always seemed like a strange omission to me, but makes sense in retrospect. They always try to bring a new angle to standard genres and two brothers on an 80s movie style road trip in a pseudo-modern world feels exactly like the pitch they needed.
In specific, Onward follows Ian and Barley, elves in a world where magic because of the ease of technology. On his 16th birthday Ian and brother Barley are given a magical staff and gem to help revive their father for one day. When the spell fails they must partake in an old school quest to retrieve a new gem, but threats of all kind lay ahead.
Is it hacky to say the film is magical? I mean I try (and fail often) to be succinct, and to that end saying “magical” feels right. Like the magic used in the movie it isn’t perfect, but gets the job done.
It feels unnecessary to say that it is gorgeous and a giant step up in animation quality, but that often feels true for every Pixar movie. The blend of classic fantasy with modern city/suburban planning and design is wonderful. The landscapes are gorgeous, and small character details and animation really pop. It’s an obvious thing, but it’s obvious for a reason. They are still one of the best studios in the business for their artistic sense.
The team also really nails the main dynamic between brothers Ian and Barley. Tom Holland really disappears in the voice work while Chris Pratt can only do his Andy routine. This time he lands on a spectrum of college kid with no sense of direction but quest for adventure. It feels very real and they bond well. Similarly the brothers’ mom has a great bond with adventurer turned Chuck E Cheese manager, The Manticore. They bring out some very real adult friendship energy to counterbalance the brothers’ growth and travel. The one character that does fall short is the mother’s new boyfriend, a centaur cop. He is not really explored enough other than to show how he impacts the brothers and indirectly helps in their journey. We get some personality from him, but he doesn’t get a lot to do and makes him kind of unmemorable. That comes from the right place of focusing on the main characters, but in a well drawn cast he is the closest to a stick figure.
The most impressive part of the film over just the teams love of fantasy is how much personality, comedy, and genuine heart out of a character being only a pair of legs. The team does everything they possibly can with that concept and it is great. We get a good sense of who their father was quite literally without a full picture. He dances, bonds, and saves their lives only with the part they got. It’s very clever and well worth the watch all on its own.
There are more great things, the comedy is great. There is an amazing car chase with a group of fairy bikers across a highway. There is a spectacular final battle against a dragon to really show how much the characters have grown. And the conclusion for the brothers is really solid and overall well earned.
If there are any problems outside of the mother’s boyfriend it would be that we do not get a lot in way of setup. They establish the character arcs well enough, but then thrust us into the journey before fully giving us a real sense of their normal. It only really impacts the third act, but it felt hollow in a way the rest of the movie did not.
Now, I’ve been avoiding this part because it’s personal. So, the last Pixar movie to make me really feel something was Toy Story 3 (oh wow, big shocker). They got close with how Toy Story 4 ended, but still didn’t nail it. This movie really got me. That’s because the ability to see someone you never really got the know or spend time with is something that really resonates with me. So, when the characters get what they want in certain ways it can only hit me hard. That makes it harder to judge, but it is something really special.
You should totally see it.
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