My 2 Cents on Pixar’s Onward

What’s new, readers? I hope you’re heeding social distancing rules, finding ways to keep yourself from going stir-crazy during COVID-19, and praying our egomaniacal and “total authority”-obsessed president doesn’t tear the United States apart. Personally, I’m occupying myself with writing, reading, watching the musical parodies of Chris Mann, and being repeatedly amused by the public’s rising awareness of hygienic measures. I say that last part because my mother is a complete germaphobe, and it’s funny to see everyone finally catch up to her habits—sanitizing your smartphone and the case, changing clothes when you come home, not touching your face when you’re outside, even using hand sanitizer and washing your hands (apparently there were people out there who were content to skip that simple step and let their germs fester). Also, I just finished The Mandalorian on Disney Plus, and I gotta say, Baby Yoda has made this grievous situation a tad easier to bear.
All right, enough coronavirus chitchat. Let’s get into my thoughts on the Pixar animated movie, Onward, which was released on Disney Plus a couple weeks ago after getting prematurely pulled from theaters due to the pandemic. Directed by Dan Scanlon (Monsters University), Onward takes place in a world populated by elves, goblins, centaurs, Cyclopes, and other fantasy-genre creatures. However, magic and wizardry, being difficult to master, died out a long time ago in favor of the amenities of smartphones, cars, and other modern technologies. The story focuses on an elf, Ian (Tom Holland), and his elder brother Barley (Chris Pratt), as they’re given the chance on Ian’s sixteenth birthday to use a spell that can resurrect their deceased father for one day. However, they’re only able to complete this spell partway, leaving them with his sentient legs. Now the brothers only have the next twenty-four hours to venture on a quest in Barley’s unicorn-emblazoned van, Guinevere, so they can obtain the magical gem they need to fuel the rest of the spell and bring back the rest of their father’s body.
Unsurprisingly, Onward is yet another example of Pixar’s capacity for heartwarming storytelling, focusing on Ian’s longing to see his father, whom he has never met (the mother was pregnant with Ian when the dad died), and the brotherly bond between Ian and Barley. It achieves Pixar’s signature knack for presenting animated movies that connect with both children and adults, even as the two audiences absorb different themes and experiences. Let’s not forget to mention the animation, which seems to step up its standards for rich detail and gorgeous visuals with every subsequent Pixar film. The suburban fantasy environment draws inspiration from The Incredibles by juxtaposing the mundane with the fantastic, such as pesky unicorns eating from the trash or a run-in with a biker clan of pugnacious sprites. Where the movie falls is the plot, which relies on predictable and conveniently constructed devices to move the adventure forward.
Scanlon has spoken about how this movie has been cathartic for him, since it is inspired by his own life; he was one and his brother was three when their father died in a car accident. There’s even an early scene where Ian listens to a cassette recording of his dad’s voice, which is based on a cassette that Scanlon also had of his own father. Onward is clearly a passion project for him, yet it never gets weighed down by its own subject matter, never feels mawkish or manipulative, and makes a smooth transition in the mood between the hilarity of the first hour to the copious emotions of the last half hour.
When it comes to the voice cast, the standout performance is obviously Pratt, who I enjoy immensely in Marvel Studios’s Guardians of the Galaxy and The Lego Movie. As Barley, a big kid who geeks out about role-playing games and the lost magic of yore, Pratt unleashes a bountiful comedic verve that reminds me of Jack Black in Kung Fu Pandaand Will Ferrell in Megamind. Holland is solid as Ian, the anxious and shy main protagonist through whom we comprehend the vibes of the story, although this is the kind of role that could have been played as satisfactorily by almost any young male star. The brilliant Julia Louis-Dreyfus returns to Pixar, over two decades after A Bug’s Life, as Ian and Barley’s mom, and Octavia Spencer plays The “Corey” Manticore, who was once an adventuresome beast but has since then settled down and opened a theme diner based on her former feats. The movie squeezes in quite a few cameos too, including Mel Rodriguez, Tracey Ullman, Lena Waithe, and Ali Wong.
Onward has become the first movie in the Pixar canon to include an explicitly LGBTQ character: Waithe’s Officer Specter, who casually references her girlfriend’s daughter. This first step toward queer rep has been much lauded, and I hope it indicates a willingness for Pixar to feature queer protagonists in the future.
The plot is fairly fast-paced and frenetic, especially once it builds up to the climax, which does kick things up a couple notches on the sensory assault scale. Really, though, it wraps up Ian and Barley’s arcs with just the right emotional touches; it’s this moment and the one preceding it that will bring up all the feels. The Brandi Carlisle track that accompanies the credits, “Carried Me With You,” might snag an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song. And the score by Mychael and Jeff Danna is perfect, setting a classical fantasy tone along the lines of LOTRor Game of Thrones.
Now that we’re almost through with this review, the big question is, where does Onward end up on my list of Favorite Pixar Films? Right in the middle, I’d say—it’s no Toy Story or Up, but it’s an enjoyable and stirring journey that will raise our spirits in this time of crisis.
Now we’ll have to wait for Pixar to come out with Soul, which is supposed to be released in theaters on June 19. I’m skeptical about that, what with the way this merry old pandemic is progressing. Hey, remember when everyone first saw that teaser last year and made fun of Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey’s characters for looking like fuzzy aquamarine versions of the emotions from Inside Out? Oh, our naïveté.
All my love and prayers go to you, readers. Stay healthy and stay strong.
Windup score: 86/100