Onward (2020) – Movie Review

Jenna Pateman goes in search of magic with the help of Pixar

Onward

Synopsis

Two teenage elf brothers, Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) go on a journey to discover if there is still a little magic left out there in order to spend one last day with their father, who died when they were too young to remember him.

Review

It has been 25 years, this year since Pixar released the first entirely computer-animated feature film, Toy Story, and helped utterly change the medium of animation. (Leading to the takeover of computer animation, in family-friendly animation and the ‘death’ of traditional western 2D animation.) Pixar’s representation has been for creative and stunning animation and engaging and emotional stories suitable for the whole family. Even with a couple of misses in my opinion (Cars 2… was not great…), they are still recognised as one of the most reliable studios working in Hollywood today.

In this important year for the animation studio, they are releasing two new films, both two brand new stories, Soul, about a dead music teacher, which is due for release in the summer, and then Onward which comes out on 6th March.

The film opens “Long ago, the world was full of wonder.” Onward’s world used to be the sort of land that we imagine when we interact with high fantasy properties. But slowly, the magic of the world was lost because magic is hard and using technology is simple. Depicting development that is very similar to our own world’s technological development, to the point that their present-day is basically our present-day but with a high fantasy overlay. The world’s setup is similar to the Disney Animation, Zootopia (2016)(Zootropolis here in the UK) or other Pixar’s films such as Monsters INC or Cars, being able to have a location that does not need too much explanation as it is just our world but… allowing for the fantastical with the everyday.

The plot revolves around two teenaged Elf brothers, Ian (played by Tom Holland) and Barley (played by Chris Pratt) Lightfoot. On Ian’s 16th birthday, the brothers receive a gift from their deceased father: a magic staff along with a spell that will allow their father to return for just 24 hours, allowing for Ian to meet his father for the first-ever time, and Barley to reconnect. Due to shenanigans, the spell goes slightly wrong, and they are only able to bring their Dad’s legs back, leading the Lightfoots on a quest to complete the spell and allow the brothers to spend some quality time with him before the 24 hours are up.

The film is everything that you expect from a Pixar outing. Compelling characters, fun worldbuilding, and a mixture of heartwarming, funny and emotional moments. However, like many of Pixar (and Disney’s) newer fares, you can see all the Chekhov’s guns being set up during the story, and as the viewer, you are just waiting for them to shoot. The twists are easy for adult audiences to see coming, however for younger audiences, such as a certain little Miss Evelyn Pateman who joined me for the preview, the twists are a pleasant surprise. I can report that Miss Pateman gasped quite a few times, and mentioned to me at the end that she really enjoyed the location twist. Some moments were a little frightening for a 6-year-old child, but nothing a little snuggle with either Mum or Dad was enough to keep her watching. Although, due to the nature of the story being about two brothers, it did mean she was asking for a sibling… again… (Nope…)

The brothers have a good mixture of similarities and differences to make their siblinghood feel real. The journey that the brothers go on allows for a real explanation into their relationship, getting both brothers to grow and develop, having meaningful character arcs for both of them. Tom Holland and Chris Pratt’s voice acting is perfect, complimenting each other. The fact that the two actors already have worked together, as the MCU’s two Peters, and had a working friendship to its advantage. Pixar also allowed the two men to work in the same room when recording their lines, something that is rare for Western animation, making the conversation feel more natural. The rest of the cast is also enjoyable, with a refreshing mixture of characters. This includes the boy’s mother, Laurel Lightfoot who in my opinion is a delightful and excellent representation of a badass, although normal mum, allowing for the feeling that she is a character, that is more than just being a mum (Hope that makes sense).

There has been a bit of uproar from organisations like One Million Moms, due to the film containing Disney’s first-ever completely out LGBT character, a Lesbian cyclops police officer, Specter. It is great to see a role in a Disney film that cannot be denied as being part of the LGBT community. However, this is opposite from Disney’s previous attempt for LGBT representation, LeFou in the Live-Action remake of Beauty and the Beast (2017), whose gayness could be ignored by audiences wishing to ignore the ‘subtle’ comments, and straight-wash LeFou. The problem with Specter is that the character is only in one scene, and her line about her “girlfriend’s kid” feeling a little forced. But at the same time it is another step in the right direction for greater representation, and hopefully one day soon Disney will be brave enough to allow for a full main character not to be Straight or Cis-gendered. (Oh Disney, you could have made a fantastic jump forward, with Finn and Poe in the Star Wars franchise, but alas.) Other background characters can be seen to make the cast diverse with the different species being designed with some characteristics that make the city seem multiracial, without outgoing into racial stereotyping.

All in all, Onward is a delightful film, which will entertain the whole family. To be completely honest, it reminds me a little of Disney’s Frozen II from last year. Both films are not the studio’s best film (and is in no way reaching the heights of Pixar’s other films such as Wall.E, Inside Out, Toy Story trilogy, or the first 10 minutes of Up) but most other western animation studios would kill for a film of this quality. I enjoyed the characters, and I liked that the plot mostly stayed quite small, as from the opening discussing the world. I thought that the story was going to affect the world more widely. Still, it remained very focused on the boys and their quest, making it feel like a great character study. The film is warm, creative, emotional and fun like all good family-friendly films should be. The film also touches on questions of history, in terms of forgetting traditions because technology is so much more comfortable the old ways, which as one of Bunkazilla’s resident historians made me super happy, and wanting a bit more on that topic. Still, the brothers are indeed the highlight of the film. You can tell that this story, even with its fantastical elements, has come from an authentic place, based on the Director/Writer/Producer’s (Dan Scanlon) own reflections on childhood grief, and the relationship with his older brother.

If you are an animation fan, just a fan of Pixar’s films, or a parent looking for an enjoyable film for the whole family, I would highly recommend this film, and I am highly looking forward to Pixar’s next film in summer.

★★★★

Jenna Pateman

Onward is at cinemas nationwide now. Quick Note: There is a short included with the film and it is a Simpson’s based one and is alright. It is a shame because I always look forward to the shorts allowing for animators to tell unique and new stories, and using the Simpsons, even in a different way, felt like a waste.


Jenna Pateman is one of the hosts of Reel History, now broadcasting on Bunkazilla. Check the schedule for upcoming broadcast times.

You can follow Jenna on twitter @nadesicokitty and if you enjoyed her work you can support here at Ko-fi.com. Just hit the button below. 

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