REEL Review – Onward (2020)

Director: Dan Scanlon | Runtime: 1hr 42mins | Animation, Adventure, Comedy

In Pixar’s newest feature, two elf brothers Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) discover that in their modern take on a fantasy world, there’s still a little bit of magic left, and it might just help them see their deceased father one last time.

Pixar are known for creating inventive and beautiful original stories aimed at family and child audiences. The Toy Story series (1995-2019), Finding Nemo (2003) and Coco (2017) being some of the highlights – the latter was their most recent original story until Onward. It takes the fantasy setting of Elves, Centaurs, Manticores and places it in a modern setting, working surprisingly well (somewhat like Bright from 2017, though much better).

We follow Ian Lightfoot, voiced excellently by Tom Holland. Those young, excitable characteristics from his Spiderman performance in the MCU are present here also, giving a lot of life to awkward teenage Ian as he fumbles trying to invite a few classmates over for his birthday. He’s given an extra layer though, as his father passed away before he was born, and his biggest dream is to have done those typical father son activities; play catch, laugh together and share advice. He does have an older brother, Barley, whose voice performance from Chris Pratt is exactly what you’d imagine from Chris Pratt voicing a cartoon Elf to be. Funny, charming, witty, made all that more entertaining by his obsession with a Dungeon & Dragons-esque game Quests of Yore. Although it’s a tabletop role-playing game, Barley insists it’s historically accurate.

Their adventure comes when their mother Laurel (voiced by the wonderful Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gives Ian a present from his father on his birthday, saying that she wasn’t supposed to give it to the boys till they were both over 16. It turns out to be a staff, and it also turns out their father was a wizard, his last gift was a visitation spell giving the brothers 24 hours with him one last time. After a slight mishap, Ian manages to only summon their fathers legs (becoming a very easy point of comedy throughout) and breaks the gem that cast the spell in the process. Now on a clock, the brothers much venture outward to find another to finish the spell and spend the remaining few hours with their lost father.

Though entertaining, there isn’t much meat on the bone and we aren’t given much to latch on to.

It becomes quite obvious early on that we’re going to get a modern take on a fantasy quest, Barley knowing the ins and outs of what they should do by extensive play of Quests of Yore. Most of their stops on their adventure are pretty humorous, ancient quest givers are family restaurant owners, pixies are now a ruthless biker gang and so on, always a play on typical expectations, but it all feels a little hollow. Though entertaining, there isn’t much meat on the bone and we aren’t given much to latch on to, the drive to spend time with their father may be the reason the quest has been initiated, but it doesn’t resonate throughout emotionally. Having his legs follow them is good for light comedy, but it almost removes part of the reason we care about them going on this adventure, which is the same issue with the leads themselves. They’re entertaining, but there isn’t much to latch onto throughout.

Although fun but shallow, much of the criticisms are squandered in the third act, as we’re given a very emotional release, and a pretty heart wrenching moment of realisation. It’s difficult to say this saves the film as a whole, there is quite a dramatic shift in emotional resonance and general quality of writing in those final scenes, without the previous story leading up to this it wouldn’t have been a worthy pay off, but after the credits roll you likely won’t remember much outside the last act.

As always with Pixar, the animation is phenomenal, blowing all other studios out of the water in comparison. Even with recent releases like Frozen 2 (2019), Disney seems to struggle to keep up despite owning Pixar as well. The colours are rich and vibrant, the fantastical setting allows for many instances of magic and supernatural creatures to fill your screen absorbing you into the world – much of the reason we easily engross ourselves into the very surreal environment is how detailed the animation really is.

Though ending on a high, there’s not a great deal before to write home about. It has many hallmarks of why Pixar are the top of their industry; superb animation, great voice acting, entertaining writing and original settings, but they aren’t enough to carry a film that is mostly forgettable for over half the runtime.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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