Pixar’s Onward is one of the more peculiar films in the legendary animation studios amazing history, one that covers the last quarter of a century and has delivered some of the best films in that time frame; the Toy Story franchise, Inside Out, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles. You’ll even find folks who enjoy The Good Dinosaur for its sweet story and amazing visuals. Wall*E is found on a lot of top Pixar lists. The Cars franchise has become a merchandising behemoth and has its own theme park section at Disneyland. Basically, whatever Pixar gives us is almost sure to leave some kind of lasting impression.
So where does Onward fall in the ranks of the collection? The answer, as is usually the case, may not be as easy as simply putting a number on it and filing it alongside the rest of the batch.
Directed by Dan Scanlon, who also helmed Monsters University, and starring Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Octavia Spencer, is the story of two elf brothers who embark on a journey to bring back their deceased father for one day. And as Ian and Barley, voiced by Holland and Pratt respectively, find themselves on an adventure met with some precarious circumstances, they find out more about themselves along the way that will help guide them in their quest and help them in the next phase of their lives.
Scanlon wrote the story from personal experience, having lost his father at a young age and wondering what it would be like to meet him, and anyone who has lost a parent–especially at a young age when the memories and moments may be few–will immediately connect with the story. And how could you not? Ian is a teenage elf who is completely unsure of himself in pretty much every situation. He’s essentially a loner who is desperately craving socialization, and in one meant-to-be-cringey moment, something as mundane as inviting others to a birthday party becomes an exercise in humiliation. Nothing goes right and Ian is left feeling the pain that comes from not knowing how to pull himself out of this and become the confident young elf he desires to be. And he does desire to be many things, as he keeps his own to-do list on how to become the elf he dreams of being.
Barley, Ian’s older and wilder brother, is carefree and happy. He is the epitome of positivity and adventure. He wants to take the road less traveled because it’s probably filled with all kinds of mysterious shenanigans. He’s really the opposite of Ian, and is an example of how two people who have lost someone so very close can handle their loss in very different ways. Ian is closed off, more alone to himself and his thoughts, but wants to break out. Barley wants to rush out and do the crazy things without much regard for what seems more practical. He’s not so much the rule breaker as he is the curious fan of life. But as you watch the film, it’s so very obvious that he’s in pain from the loss of his father, and he’s had to bear a great weight for his family.
The mother, Laurel Lightfoot, voiced by Dreyfus, is as you would expect her to be; a loving mom who is struggling to be the sole parent for her two kids who have entered into that wild age between older child and young adult. It’s all coming at her so fast that she’s just trying to make due the best she can. The character of Laurel certainly isn’t a main point in this film, and thus the themes of the role take a backseat to the main story of the Lightfoot Brothers. But it’s no less important in the overall story; she wants to see her boys safe but also understands that they are at a fork in the road and they may need to take some chances. Still, she’s a mother, so of course she’s going to go after them, and she has some tricks up her sleeves in her own quest to make sure her boys have their best chance of succeeding.
The story is predictable in nature, and as such, the characters have to be that much more interesting to make up for anything that would be easy to catch. Scenes happen pretty quickly, and some could do with some extension. You can feel a moment happening at certain points and then as quickly as it hits, it’s on to the next one. Beat to beat, the story suffers from being rushed. But the characters of Ian and Barley are so incredibly endearing that–while it doesn’t make up for the faster pace that hurts the impact–it definitely keeps it from falling into the well of mediocrity.
And that’s where the rubber meets the road with Onward. It’s less about the story and much more about the relationship of Ian and Barley. Barley really is trying to guide his younger elf brother through the trenches of teenage life–in the best way he can–while also not having any fatherly guidance himself. He’s been tasked with a difficult job. And Ian is trying to fill the void of not having his father in his life. And it’s the little moments where the characters get to breathe that show the heart of the film. When Barley admits to Ian that his longing for magical quests and his decision to be completely fearless stems from a moment where he gave in to the fear, is really something that we can all connect with on some level, even if we haven’t experienced what Barley has.
Onward is filled with fun moments, of course. My favorite is shown in the trailer, when Ian shrinks Barley, and we get to watch how Ian is forced to make some tough decisions that will either end their dream of seeing their father, or keep them on the path towards their ultimate treasure.
It’s also quite sweet. Not heartbreaking, per se, but you hurt for the Lightfoot family, not because they want to be pitied or are even pining for anyone’s sympathies, but because they keep going despite the hurts of the past. They are an incredibly endearing family, and can be a shining example of hope and decency when you are facing tough times.
Onward gets a B+ grade from me. Whatever weaknesses may come from the predictable story are simply minimized by the charming characters that we track with over this movie.
Where does it rank in the echelon of Pixar films? I don’t know. I don’t like to play that game. I would much prefer to be entranced with the film in front of me than worry about how a film like Onward lines up with Toy Story or The Incredibles. It’s a different kind of movie than those, and whether you enjoy it or not will totally depend on what you like to see from your story. For my time and money, it’s a winner.