Since its first foray into animation with Luxo Jr. (1986) and with its groundbreaking Toy Story (1995), Pixar has been the quality standard for animation in Hollywood. Thus whenever a new release of theirs is announced, viewers prick their ears. Their quality standard is so high that what some fans may consider an “average” Pixar movie is still miles ahead from any other competition output. As such, Onward (2020) proves to be an enjoyable and somewhat generic Pixar film that meets the necessities of the average viewer.
Onward takes place in a magical world of fantasy creatures, that of dragons, manticores, centaurs, and elves. However, this realm of fantasy has moved on from its Medieval and “Lord of the Rings” days and has become a globalized and capitalistic world with cars, supermarkets, and fast food. We follow Ian (Tom Holland) an elf whom upon turning sixteen is given a gift that his dead father had saved for him and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt): a magic staff. This staff will allow the brothers to conjure up their father and spend 24 hours with him. However, things don’t go according to plan, so Ian and Barley will have to embark on a classic quest out of their “history” books.
Pixar is known for taking on incredibly simple concepts and ideas and creating fascinating and witty plots around them, such as “what happens to your toys when you’re not in your room?” or “what’s life like for the monster in your closet.” Onward seems to craft too complex a concept in comparison, spending time on worldbuilding that could have been further spent on character details and development. Onward also seems to create its world, but not spend much time reveling in it. Unlike Zootopia (2016), which had a similar burden of worldbuilding, Onward doesn’t take advantage to comment on the society it is reflecting. This seemed to be a missed opportunity, Zootopia was incredibly adept at commenting on racism and prejudice, and Onward seemed to be geared towards the corruptibility of consumerism on memory and history. As such, Onward seems to steer clear from social commentary, and instead on a more “safer” family-friendly route. That’s not to say that the journey of our characters is dull and meaningless, only diluted and restrained in terms of its potential.
As with all Pixar films, Onward has its staple witty humor and emotional moments (you will cry), but the spark of inspiration and originality seems to be somewhat mechanized. Onward seems to be like a discarded concept that was forcefully unearthed and fixed up, it has only the echoes of Pixar’s creative peaks. The film is able to craft a compelling story, however, still unlike anything another animation studio puts out today. The original idea should be applauded as bold, since unique stories are becoming increasingly hard to find on the big screen. There is a freshness to Onward and its concept that proves alluring, even if it is not exploited to its full capabilities. The humor and action might seem a bit more child-oriented than what some adults will come to expect from Pixar, but there are still enough moments to chuckle or grip an armrest at. Every so often there are gestures and moments that truly tug at your heartstrings and grant us a whiff of the creative expertise working behind the film.
In the end, while Onward might be a bit more generic and formulaic with its storytelling than Pixar has accustomed viewers to, it is a touching and entertaining movie. The originality of its concept and fun voice cast add spark and intrigue to the screen, proving to be a delightful pastime.