The last 10 years have not been incredibly kind to Pixar, with 2015’s “Inside Out” and 2017’s “Coco” proving to be bright spots in what has otherwise been a decade of underwhelming Pixar sequels and original properties that just didn’t take off the way Pixar’s films did in the early 2000s.
In 2018, I wrote a column speculating “Is Pixar in trouble?” theorizing that pressure by Disney to put out a film every year — sometimes multiple films a year — have contributed to their relative fall from grace, as well as their increased focus on making sequels. But with 2019’s Oscar-winning “Toy Story 4”, it seemed like Pixar got their mojo back, and 2020’s “Onward” keeps up that momentum.
“Onward” takes place in a former magical land that has become modernized with technology because using magic is very hard to do. So you have a world full of goblins and elves and other mythical creatures who live in suburbia, go to school and hold day jobs, similar to “Monsters Inc.” And the whole theme of the film is about finding the magic that has been lost in the world due to urbanization and modernity.
That’s all and well, but no great Pixar movie can rely on its gimmicks alone; it needs great characters. Thankfully, “Onward” has two great leads in high school elf Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), and his college-aged brother, Barley (Chris Pratt). Holland and Pratt completely disappear into their roles, which is exactly what you want when you hire big-name actors like them. Ian plays a shy, awkward adolescent just starting to come into his own as a teenager, while Barley is the care-free older brother with a depth of knowledge into the world.
If you watched the trailers to this film, you’ll know that the plot centers around Ian and Barley finding a magical staff that can bring back their dad, Wilden (Kyle Bornheimer), who died of an illness when they were still young. Only there’s a problem; the Phoenix Gem that powers the staff breaks mid-spell, bringing back only the lower half of their father. Determined to bring the top half of him back to life before time runs out, Ian and Barley embark upon a dangerous quest to find the gem and finally meet their father.
The film has a well-rounded colorful cast of characters, including their middle-aged mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) who chases after the boys and will kill for them if needed; a manticore named Corey (Octavia Spencer) who tells the boys where to find the gem and is a shadow of her former warrior self; and their mother’s boyfriend and centaur police office, Colt Bronco (Mel Rodiguez), who doesn’t really have a bad side despite being a senior officer. They all have their own distinct personalities and character journeys, and they fit well together. Even the minor characters that appear in a scene or two leave an impact.
“Onward” is a very sweet, well done film that was lovingly made. Be prepared to feel things, and even cry. Director Dan Scanlon, whose filmography surprisingly contains more animated Disney sequels than anything else, shows an understanding in “Onward” that the best scenes are those that are simple and show heart. “Onward”‘s best scene is an inaudible exchange between Barley and his father, and is only impactful because of the mastery of the filmmakers involved. It’s that kind of film.
Visually gorgeous. Emotionally resonant. “Onward” is the best film of 2020 so far.
“Onward” gets a 9/10.
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