Onward (2020) Review!!

Synopsis – Set in a suburban fantasy world, two teenage elf brothers embark on a quest to discover if there is still magic out there.

My Take – There is no denying of the fact that, ever since they marked their big screen debut with Toy Story, 25 years ago, Pixar as a studio has been on a dream run. Though there have been the occasional missteps in the form of Cars 2 (2011), Monsters University (2013), The Good Dinosaur (2015) and the comparatively disappointing Brave (2012), their overall filmography remains highly dominated by films tagged as down-right masterpieces.

However, this 22nd feature from the studio has a different kind of expectations around it. Other than being their first original piece since 2017’s Coco, and having MCU dominants Chris Pratt and Tom Holland lending their voices to the leads, this also happens to be the first Pixar film to be totally free of input from ousted President John Lasseter. Nevertheless, as one would have expected, the final product is a success.

Though it isn’t one of Pixar‘s best, it still is a great fantasy adventure that sticks to studio’s standard template of being highly entertaining while delivering important life lessons. While the film does suffer from some story telling issues, director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University), makes sure that throughout its run time, rediscovering magic remains fun, funny and emotional.

Taking place in a mythical modern world where fantasy creatures have long forgotten magic due to the discovery of technology and it’s access and usage, the story follows Ian (voiced by Tom Holland), a socially awkward elf, who lives with his widowed mother Laurel (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and his older brother Barley (voiced by Chris Pratt). While Barley is a loud and rambunctious type who is obsessed with the Quest of Yore game and mythology, Ian is a more pensive type who still mourns the late father he never met.

However, their life changes when their mother presents them both with a gift, in the form of a magical wizard staff, from their father, one he left with instructions to be held until Ian turned 16, and includes the precious Phoenix stone, that can bring him back to life for 24 hours. But with Barley’s knowledge of the magical spells combined with Ian’s lack of self-confidence they end up botching things to the point that only the bottom half of their dad is brought back.

Now under a tight deadline and in need of a replacement gem to bring dad back for a much desired final conversation, the brothers take off on an adventure that turns pretty wild, with their quest leads them to cross paths with many of the previously enchanted creatures, including the fabulous Manticore (voiced by Octavia Spencer), and their mom’s boyfriend, Officer Colt Bronco (voiced by Mel Rodriguez), a centaur police officer, hot on their trail.

The point of this quest, of course, isn’t really to find what they’re looking for. It’s to let Ian realize things about his own powers and learn boldness, and for him and Barley to strengthen their bonds as brothers while traveling through frightening distant lands. We have come to expect such kind of stories from Pixar with every film, and this one doesn’t disappoint.

It may not be quite as awe-inspiring as some of their best work, but it’s still a terrific suburban fantasy adventure filled with comedy and life lessons with the most crucial being happy with what you have is more crucial to your inner-peace than getting what you hope for.

However, this film, directed by Dan Scanlon, who has also co-written the screenplay with Jason Headley and Keith Bunin, is also not your standard Pixar feature, as it cleverly employs the structure of the sort of campaign you might play in a fantasy role-playing game such as Dungeons & Dragons, with heroes, a quest, a number of obstacles and monsters, puzzles, spells, and some surprises thrown in here and there. Despite all that the film doesn’t go overboard with its fantasy elements, the film remains grounded with its story, for example, a fountain that gets introduced through a gag reappears at a crucial moment of the film.

One of Pixar’s most profound strengths has always been confronting the bittersweet along with the purely sweet and funny, in stories that kids and parents can watch together. The studio has been especially good at dealing with loss and even death, in films ranging from Inside Out to Up to the Toy Story series, and this film pulls at those same heartstrings. Here, the ending is also one of the most emotional I have been in a Pixar film since the inferno scene at the end of Toy Story 3, almost a decade ago. When you understand what the actual message of the story is, behind the road-trip adventure they go on, it will move you and grab you by the heartstrings.

However, the film does have a few shortcomings. For example, I did feel that the film could’ve used more scenes to introduce Ian and his familial situations, in order for him to grow more as a character and not come as whinny in some scenes. Also the so-called curse, which plays as the big bad in the climax, came across as a bit inadequate and less menacing, something which could have easily been omitted without any difference to the whole structure of the film.

Coming to the voice performances, Tom Holland and Chris Pratt brought much energy to their characters, and the dynamic between the two of them is electrifying and engaging. Julia Louis-Dreryfus too is excellent, while Octavia Spencer and Mel Rodriguez seems to be having blast. Lena Waithe and Ali Wong are likable in their small roles. On the whole, ‘Onward’ is an enjoyable animated film which despite not being one of Pixar‘s best manages to be a fun emotional fantasy adventure.

Directed – Dan Scanlon

Starring (voices of) – Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Rated – PG

Run Time – 102 minutes

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