Review: Onward

Year: 2020
Run Time: 103 minutes
Director: Dan Scanlon
Writers: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin
Stars: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer 

By Nicole Ackman

Pixar’s latest offering, “Onward,” is more than just your normal magical animated film; it’s a touching tale of brotherly love that deals with grief, learning to believe in yourself, and the awkwardness of your teenage years. Directed by Dan Scanlon, who previously worked on “Monsters University” (2013) for the studio, the movie feels both cleverly unique and markedly Pixar. 

“Onward” is the story of brothers Ian and Barley, elves who live in a world in which modern technology has replaced magic long ago. It resembles our normal world, but populated by magical creatures from sprites to cyclops. While older brother Barley is obsessed with the magical past and the game Quests of Yore, Ian is just trying to celebrate his 16th birthday and not make a fool of himself in front of his classmates. When a special birthday gift offers Ian the chance to meet the father who passed away while he was still a baby, the two must go on a real quest of their own. 

“At its best, this film is a really sweet movie about family…We often see films about sisters, but a moving film about brothers that completely rejects any sort of ideas of toxic masculinity is more rare.”

Writers Scanlon, Jason Headley, and Keith Bunin did a great job with the world building of the film. It has influences from both fairy tales and D&D, with a lot of distinctive interpretations as well. It boasts the normal Pixar-level quality of animation and while it’s nothing particularly special on that front, it’s definitely serviceable. The script has some very funny moments (like them leading around their father, who has materialized only from the waist down, on a leash) in addition to more adventurous and moving moments. 

onward fim
Chris Pratt and Tom Holland in Onward (2020) © 2019 Disney/Pixar.

At its best, this film is a really sweet movie about family. Ian and Barley are being raised, after their dad’s death from an illness, by their fierce but loving mom Laurel. Though she has a (centaur) boyfriend, she is involved in her son’s lives while also doing exercise videos in the living room. It’s a reverse of the normal Disney trope of protagonists who only have one parent as it’s almost always the mother who has died and the father who is parenting alone. 

We often see films about sisters, but a moving film about brothers that completely rejects any sort of ideas of toxic masculinity is more rare. For all their differences, Barley and Ian are close. I love that when Ian’s magical abilities are revealed, his older brother is excited for him, not jealous. The boys openly discuss their feelings, talking out the issues that they have. I was also surprised to see a scene where Ian mends a sweatshirt as it’s so rare to see a male character sewing onscreen (unless he’s a fashion designer because sewing falls into that category of task that is thought of as feminine when done non-professionally, but dominated by men at the highest levels). 

“Onward” doesn’t break any ground with its animation and it’s not as high-level concept as many Pixar movies, but it is genuinely touching. It’s not “Inside Out” or “Coco” and yet, this is certainly something that the entire family can enjoy.”

“Onward” captures the awkwardness of high school well as Ian tries to figure out how to make friends. He hopes to become a new, better version of himself who is able to drive a car and easily talk to his classmates. But over the course of the film, we see Ian learn to believe in himself and stop letting his fear hold him back. Tom Holland brings the same awkward charm and impressive American accent to the character of Ian as he does to the role of Peter Parker in the Spider-Man films. 

Barley is voiced by another Marvel actor, Chris Pratt, who vocally plays well off of Holland. The main cast is rounded out by Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Laurel and Octavia Spencer as the Manticore who needs a little encouragement to become the bold creature she once was. 

onward 1
Chris Pratt and Tom Holland in Onward (2020) © 2020 Disney/Pixar.

No, “Onward” doesn’t break any ground with its animation and it’s not as high-level concept as many Pixar movies, but it is genuinely touching. It’s not “Inside Out” or “Coco” and yet, this is certainly something that the entire family can enjoy and that I imagine I’ll rewatch once it’s on Disney+. I had the special experience of seeing it with my 16-year-old younger sister, who is a massive Tom Holland fan and usually makes fun of me for getting emotional during movies. At one of the emotional sibling bits, she leaned over to me and put her head down on my shoulder. And if that made me a bit weepy, at least I could blame it on the movie. 

4 stars

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