‘Onward’ and upward from here

Pixar’s newest flick struggles thematically but still delivers on imaginative scope

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British actor Tom Holland, best known for his role as Spiderman in the Marvel franchise, stars in Pixar's newest family film "Onward." 

Courtesy Gage Skidmore

“Onward” — the latest from renowned Pixar Animation Studios — offers audiences a typical film of the genre, packed with recognizable features such as gorgeous animation, tear-jerking moments and family-friendly themes. Coming from the studio behind gems such as the “Toy Story” saga, “Finding Nemo,” the “Cars” trilogy and “Up,” “Onward” seems poised to be a sure hit. Unfortunately, while “Onward” is a wonderful and perfectly enjoyable film, it never lives up to the likes of previous Pixar masterpieces, as it suffers from a bloated plot and overreliance on its star-studded cast.

Set in a fantastical world with pixies, elves, dragons, centaurs and more, “Onward” tells the story of 16-year-old Ian Lightfoot — voiced by Tom Holland — as he struggles with ordinary life problems associated with growing up, such as finding friends and learning to drive. Ian lives in a world that previously relied on and flourished with magic. However, the magic disappeared as modern conveniences such as electricity were discovered. Upon his sixteenth birthday, Ian’s mother, voiced by Pixar veteran Julia Louis-Dreyfus, gifts Ian and his older, magic-obsessed brother Barley — voiced by Chris Pratt — with a present from their father, who passed away when both Ian and Barley were young. The present turns out to be a wizard’s staff imbued with a spell to bring Ian and Barley’s dad back for 24 hours. After things initially go wrong, Ian and Barley must set out on a quest so that they can both see their dad again.

The animation from Pixar always offers a visual treat to the audience, and “Onward” is no exception. The film takes every opportunity possible to demonstrate the latest advancements in animation technology, particularly in the realistic depiction of water. The animators of the film deserve high praise for their technique, as the film is quite simply gorgeous. One particularly memorable scene utilizes the film’s vibrant color palette to create not only the most realistic water ever seen in an animated film, but also the most realistic lighting. This scene depicts a character with a shadow across their face which blends a multitude of blues, reds and purples to create an incredibly realistic and beautiful composition.

Writer and director Dan Scanlon develops the new world of the film brilliantly and creatively. The fantasy elements which make up the story are interwoven seamlessly, filled to the brim with familiar features of life that have been modified for the genre — unicorns are the equivalent of raccoons, dragons are the equivalent of dogs and so on. This cleverly crafted world built by Scanlon depicts an environment in many ways equivalent to the real human world — integrating the fantastical into the mundane in numerous interesting and insightful ways. Aside from the more simple trope of substituting animals for magical creatures, Scanlon also explores the loss of “magic” — implied to be a stand-in for creativity — as life becomes increasingly convenient due to the evolution of technology. 

“Onward” often feels thematically overwhelmed as the film juggles sizable themes such as the importance of family, the conflict between tradition and modernity and finding yourself through growing up. Family — more specifically brotherhood — receives the most thematic development throughout the film while the other two themes are repeatedly neglected. “Onward” attempts to balance all three of these larger than life themes at once, and the film suffers on account of it by attempting to divide its attention between the three.

As disappointing as it is that the film fails to fully delve into each of its themes, “Onward” does expertly handle its familial themes. Inspired by events from the life of Scanlon, “Onward” explores how the loss of a parental figure affects familial dynamics. Scanlon lost his own father at the age of one, and his deep connection to the story evidences itself throughout. As Ian and Barley progress through the different stages of their adventure, they cultivate their relationship and realize how important they are to each other. Scanlon utilizes his own life to motivate the plot of the film in an incredibly moving manner, which informs and grounds the otherwise fantastical film set in the fictional world of elves, dragons, centaurs and manticores.

Though “Onward” struggles with its abundance of themes, it is never so bloated that it drags. Overall, the film offers an energetic and enjoyable fantasy-buddy-road-trip movie that is a great time for the whole family, though definitely not Pixar’s usual masterpiece. Despite being one of the least well-rounded Pixar films in terms of balancing content with visual style, let “Onward” appeal to your inner child and be sure to catch “Onward” in theaters if you get a chance. 

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