When John Lasseter started Pixar, he made a commitment to only make movies that had a strong foundation. That meant he would only put films into production that had a great script. Some may say this hasn’t always been the case (see: Cars 2 or The Good Dinosaur), but for the majority of films produced by the animation stalwart over the last twenty-five years, the promise for strong stories and characters has flourished, even after Lasseter was forced out of the company. This tradition continues with Onward, where everything that’s made Pixar the king of animation is on full display.
I will say that Onward does start out a little sluggish as it introduces us to a typical world of elves, magicians, fairies, dragons and unicorns that quickly loses its magical roots when the population discovers electricity and other amenities more convenient, thus making the use of magic all but obsolete.
We then meet Ian and Barley Lightfoot (voiced by MCU teammates Tom Holland and Chris Pratt). Ian is a shy, insecure high school student who’s scared to talk to other kids, drive and stand up for himself; Barley is the exact opposite — a role-playing game fanatic who’s full of confidence and strength.
On Ian’s sixteenth birthday, his mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gives him a gift from the father he’s never met — a wizard staff and gemstone that will allow him, with a little bit of a magic touch, to bring his father back from the dead for one day.
Being a true believer in the history of magic that is now encompassed only within the cards of his game, Barley tries to cast the spell himself, but it turns out Ian is the only one with magic in his veins. When he accidentally begins the process of resurrection, something goes horribly wrong and our heroes are left with only the bottom half of their father. In order to finish the spell and get to spend what little time they have with him, the boys head out on a quest to find another gemstone.
This is when the film truly finds its voice. The journey Ian and Barley take to find a new gemstone is the core and the heart of the story, which seamlessly leads to a shift from one idea to another that makes the whole journey worthwhile. The film wouldn’t necessarily be any worse for wear had the writers chosen to continue on a more traditional road, but because they chose to alter course in the final act allows for a much more gripping and heartfelt impact.
The ideas that carry the film can be summarized as a pair of well-crafted emotional nuclei that make up a warm and sentimental center. On one level, we are entertained with a message of how far confidence can take you in life; on another, deeper level, we are blessed with the sense of how we, as adults, sometimes lose sight of what once made us unique and special. The magic we want so desperately to possess is almost always within us the entire time.
Everything that happens along the quest is done with precision, linking every step along the path with just the right notes. Nothing ever seems forced or out of place; it all works because every step is meticulously setup in one way or another to make sure everything has purpose in progressing both the plot and the character arcs forward.
Some of the best scenes in the film revolve around Barley and his passion toward his role playing game. Anyone who has ever played Magic or Dungeons and Dragons (or knows someone who has) can relate to the inner workings of what ultimately drives the majority of the film. Barley’s enthusiasm may be much more heightened than most, but his wanting to believe everything that happens is all part of a quest to be conquered is quite endearing and fits well into the growth of not only him, but Ian as well.
The visuals are also all up to Pixar standards. From the visual gags (such as strung-out unicorns fighting for garbage) to the delicately-crafted action sequences, director Dan Scanlon never takes anything so far as to get in the way of the main story, but pushes the limits far enough to keep our senses stimulated with every frame.
It may not pull at the heartstrings as deeply as Toy Story 3, Up or Coco, or provide as many laughs as Monsters Inc. or Finding Nemo, but Onward fits perfectly into the Pixar brand. Not only is it another effective addition to the family, but it’s also the best movie of 2020 so far.
My Grade: A
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Next week, new movies include Bloodshot, I Still Believe and The Hunt. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.