Movie Review: Onward

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PG |

Director: Dan Scanlon

by Jason Koenigsberg

Onward is a step backward for the Pixar animation team. What started off with some promise is squandered into a mundane road movie about male bonding that has been done a thousand times, many of which are far more engrossing than Onward. The film opens up with some ominous music over a black screen as Tom Holland talks about how the world used to have magic and then blasts the viewer with a shot of a flying unicorn followed by revealing other mythical creatures on an exotic mountain scape. Sadly, these first few images are the most magical moments in the film. We quickly learn that this fantasy paradise soon turned into a world similar to ours with iPhones and automobiles caught in traffic jams. What was once mystical is now mundane and the movie follows suit with the images. 

The plot involves two elf brothers going on a quest to spend one day with their deceased father and to see if the magic that could bring him back still exists in their world. This picture is primarily a story about two brothers growing up without a father and the void that can create. But Onward never really goes deeper than the superficial level delving into the loss of identity and all of the pain and heartache that goes with not having a father. The brothers are voiced by Tom Holland, another big Disney paycheck for him since he plays Spider-Man, and fellow Avenger Chriss Pratt, one of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Holland is fine as the skinny and awkward younger brother but Pratt is severely miscast as the goofy ne’er-do-well big doofus brother. He simply never convinced me that he was the actual voice of the role. The whole time it feels like he is just doing a Jack Black impersonation and it would have been a lot better and less frustrating if they animated his character differently, or just hired Jack Black. But I guess Chriss Pratt is a bigger name and star power is what sells even with animated films these days. Julia Louis-Dreyfus does do a convincing job selling the mom character and some of the best small moments in Onward involved her and her difficulties as a single mother raising two boys. She has a boyfriend, a police officer who happens to be a centaur, and the screenplay wisely never turns him into a heel which it easily could have. Instead he suffers through the real life struggles that a man in his position would face. This movie would have been better if it focused on the family aspect between the two brothers, their mom and her suitor. Instead it goes the road trip movie and buddy comedy route. Which in itself is a copout from the smart engaging pictures that Pixar has made in the past that can beguile children and adults alike. 

For a movie that talks about magic a lot, Onward is really lacking in the magic department. It has some moments like a scene at a tavern that is really funny with Octavia Spencer as the voice of a Manticore, a beast-like creature that is probably the funniest set piece in the movie. The supporting characters have some inspired moments like the mother, her boyfriend, the tavern owner, and two police officers voiced by Lena Waithe and Ali Wong really made me wish they made a movie just about them. The main character brothers are the least interesting because they are two cliches. They never feel like real characters with real struggles and that makes it hard to root for them and relate to them. Some of the other action-packed sequences feel long and there is an extremely superfluous chase scene on a freeway involving pixies. One of the main characters has a checklist and of course by the end he realizes he achieved everything he wanted on this adventure without actually doing it the way he imagined he would. Onward is not a terrible movie, Pixar has made a few worse feature films than this, but it is also not special or unique at all. As I watched Onward I kept imagining different directions I wish this movie took and creating my own better movie in my head. That is the last thing one should be doing while they are trying to immerse themselves into a computer animated fantasy world. 

Skip this movie and check out any buddy comedy road picture. Below is the trailer for Tommy Boy (1995) easily the late Chris Farley’s best movie and one that deals with a lot of the same themes as Onward. If the filmmakers were really smart they could have made this movie Tommy Boy for kids. This was just one of the scenarios in my head as I watched Onward.


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