Movies & TV / Reviews

Onward Review

March 6, 2020 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
Pixar Disney Onward 4
The 411 Rating
Community Grade
Your Grade
Onward Review  

Directed By: Dan Scanlon
Written By: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley and Keith Bunin
Runtime: 112 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements

Tom Holland – Ian Lightfoot
Chris Pratt – Barley Lightfoot
Julia Louis-Dreyfus – Laurel Lightfoot
Octavia Spencer – The Manticore
Mel Rodriguez – Colt Bronco
Kyle Bornheimer – Wilden Lightfoot
Grey Griffin – Dewdrop
Lena Waithe – Officer Specter
Ali Wong – Officer Gore
George Psarras – Officer Avel
John Ratzenberger – Construction Worker Fennwick

Pixar presents its latest animated adventure with the heartfelt, poignant adventure about two brothers, Ian and Barley Lightfoot (voiced respectively by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt), in the animated family film Onward. While the film starts out a bit rough, it eventually finds its footing for an emotional, bittersweet tale about the bond of true brotherhood.

Onward is set in a fantasy realm that is not as magical as it used to be. It’s a world completely inhabited by sentient creatures of myth, fantasy and legend. There’s not a human to be found in sight. This was once a world of magical quests and adventures. However, the advent of electricity and the world experiencing an industrial revolution has caused it to become modernized and rather mundane. The magic that once inhabited the world has mostly dried out. The creatures are still there, but now the unicorns spend most of their rummaging through people’s garbage like raccoons.

Living in this fantasy world are the teenage brothers Ian and Barley. Ian is a studious, neurotic young teen. It’s his 16th birthday, but all he wants is to meet the father he never got to know. Ian and Barley’s dad, Wilden (Bornheimer), passed away when they were both very young and never got to see them grow up. The boys’ not-so-single mom, Laurel (Louis-Dreyfus), presents Ian with a special gift his father left for when he came of age. It’s a magical staff and a rare Phoenix Gem that can enact a resurrection special, so the family can see Wilden for one last time, but it only works for 24 hours. Inexplicably, Ian somehow has the gift of magic and inadvertently activates the spell, despite Barley being the buff on all things magic, spells, adventures, quests and fantasy role-playing. Unfortunately, the Phoenix Gem disintegrates before the spell can finish, and only the lower half of Wilden is restored. With the clock ticking, the boys set out on a modern-day magical quest to find another Phoenix Gem and hopefully finish the spell. Ian has longed for years to finally meet his father, and this quest has finally granted him this one chance.

For a story set in a fantasy world, inhabited by mythical characters, those characters and their relationship are surprisingly very grounded. That’s not a knock on this film. Dan Scanlon excels with depicting Ian and Barley’s relationship in a way that’s very powerful, emotional and dramatic, yet also very real and organic. This is the first Pixar movie about how important a strong brotherly bond can be. The realization and conclusion of this theme come out in a surprising, yet natural, way.

Ian and Barley are very charming, likable characters. While others see Barley as a screwup, his talents simply lie where they are least expected. He’s not characterized as a meathead jock who peaked in high school. He’s a well-meaning fantasy nerd who is simply still attached to what in his world is a bygone era. Ian is book-smart, but he’s scared to put himself out there, socialize with others and make new friends. The boys’ quest brings them closer and gets Ian out of his shell. However, the story could’ve done more with Ian being socially awkward.

The world-building in this script is joyous. Scanlon and co-writers Jason Headley and Keith Bunin thought all the odds and ends of this world out. For example, the boy’s mother has a police officer boyfriend, Colt Bronco (Rodriguez), who is also a centaur. He notes at one point that he drives a car. My immediate thought was, “How?!” Sure enough, the movie later shows Colt Bronco driving in a far and shows exactly how that works. Worldbuilding is a crucial aspect of any fantasy story, even to the smallest of details, and the writers thought through these ideas conceptually down to their most minute aspects.

One of the film’s lesser aspects is its B-subplot involving Laurel and her unlikely friendship with The Manticore (Spencer). The idea of showing Laurel getting out and having her own adventure parallel to the boys was nice, but it’s sort of superfluous when the story is really about Ian and Barley’s adventure and relationship.

The first act and setup for the film are a bit on the rocky side. The basic premise and the setting are good, but the comedy, the humor and the character relationships do not start gelling until the boys are finally well into their quest. At first, the quest resembles a sort of comedy of errors, but then it gradually evolves into a type of reconstructed magical quest that Barley had become so obsessed with for most of his life. When Ian and Barley hit the road and get on with their journey is when Onward finds its footing.

Tom Holland and Chris Pratt do a great job with their vocal performances and provide a great grounded and believable quality to Ian and Barley. Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Octavia Spencer are serviceable in their roles as Laurel and The Manticore. The film doesn’t have a big comedic show-stealer or comic relief, which is fine. The biggest laughs and humor come more from the situations of Ian and Barley’s misadventures, such as when Barley accidentally angers a biker of rough, tough and rugged pixies, led by the belligerent Dewdrop (Griffin). Additionally, there’s some fun physical comedy involving the boys’ father and his amusing “disguise.”

The way the journey mixes in fantasy and tabletop gaming lore is also a lot of fun. There’s one particular surprise in the film that classic tabletop RPG fans are probably going to love.

Onward has its issues and pacing problems, but once it gets out of the first act, this journey about the bond of brotherhood is on par with some of Pixar’s best. This is a great film for the entire family.

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
Onward has a bit of a rough start. It's an interesting world and premise, but it has trouble getting out of the gate and setting up the journey. Once Ian and Barley are on their way, the film starts to soar. Dan Scanlon does a great job in realizing a brotherly relationship between Ian and Barley that's sad, tragic, emotional and also beautiful. While it probably shouldn't come as a surprise, Pixar is still able to bring out the emotions and tearjerking when you least expect it. That is the strength of Onward.