For whom the spell trolls
‘Onward’ is Disney Pixar’s tried and true formula applied to a magical world
Directed by Dan Scanlon
Screenplay by Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin
Starring Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Octavia Spencer
Rated PG, Playing March 6
Saying something new about Pixar studios is hard — what have critics not analyzed about this studio whose cumulative movie repertoire boasts ten Academy Awards? Their formula of emotional roller coasters filled with dramas about family or identity has performed well quite a few times. Onward reapplies this formula through a fantasy world of magical beings. Well, once magical — Pixar flips this trope on its head by showing us how the population has accepted the ease of electricity over the difficulties of spell-casting.
Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), elf, 16, is our primary protagonist in Onward. Holland’s naturally awkward act brings the shyness of Ian to life. His awkwardness in this story follows from Ian’s lack of a father, whom he lost even before he was born. On his 16th birthday, through a magic spell, Ian finally gets a chance to meet him again. But when the magic spell that's supposed to bring him back for 24 hours gets stuck after only bringing the dad partially back, Ian and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) embark on a quest to restore him before next sunset.
Pixar constantly delivers on a pair of likeable protagonists who grow continually over the course of this adventure. Ian is a classically awkward, if not occasionally over-the-top, high school student who is struggling to find himself. He idolizes his dad, who he sees as the ultimate role model. His brother Barley is an entertaining foil for Ian, as he is much more confident in himself. We should also mention we thought he was particularly well-voiced by Pratt. Over their quest they confront their personal shortcomings together. And the way they do so in the end is actually quite tasteful, though a tad out of nowhere.
While the main plot is definitely enjoyable to watch, Onward also has some fun but not always engaging B plots. With Ian and Barley lost in their quest, their mom Laurel Lightfoot (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) goes on an adventure of her own to find and help them. Yet, she doesn’t give the audience much of a reason to care about her. The best part of her quest was probably enlisting the help of Corey the manticore (Octavia Spencer), who ends up being a more interesting character than Laurel. Meanwhile, the boys’ police-centaur stepdad Officer Bronco (Mel Rodriguez) spends much of the time chasing after them in vain without really growing into the role of a father figure of the kids. Given all the details and promise of depth the movie insists on making with these side characters, it’s odd to see so many of those promises barely fulfilled, or worse, hastily resolved.
The movie sometimes leans heavily into fantasy tropes to carry itself. A minute rarely goes by without some gag riffing on some magical trope. Some particular favorites of ours include a toll booth run by trolls and a centaur’s neighing laugh. Additionally, many plot points are taken from a Dungeons and Dragons equivalent, which helps provide some baseline rules in a world of magic. The resulting spells and mystical creatures provide for some seamless and impressive visuals, perhaps to show off Pixar’s position as one of the industry leaders in modern animation. That said, this movie had a particular lack of touching or memorable music, except for “Carried Me With You” by Brandi Carlile.
As in any adventure, there are bound to be a couple of one-off encounters to give the heroes some obstacles to overcome. While there weren’t too many instances of fluff, there were a few (particularly involving some pixies) that felt a tad dragged out or unnecessary, almost as if someone told a team of interns to each come up with one obstacle and then joined them together with no harmony between them to make the movie. Still, some scenes provided for some fantastic laughs, especially those involving the half-materialized, constantly bumbling dad. It’s also hard to complain when the movie feels well-paced for the most part and runs for only 103 minutes.
Overall, Onward is a somewhat flawed film but delivers on most fronts what we’d hoped from Disney Pixar. Perhaps because we have been raised on a steady diet of Pixar films, we think Onward is still a movie worth watching, but to be very clear, it’s no Coco, Inside Out, or Wall-E.