Movie Review: Onward
Onward is an animated film about a magical world filled with elves, centaurs, and other mythical creatures, but much like our own, this world has many modern conveniences that make magic a thing of the past. Though, when two brothers get a wizard's staff as a gift, they must learn to channel its power as they go on a quest to find a magic gem to restore their father to life for 24 hours. The film stars Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Mel Rodriguez, Lena Waithe, Ali Wong, and Kyle Bornheimer. It is directed by Dan Scanlon and written by Scanlon, Jason Headley, and Keith Bunin.
I will begin by writing, that Onward falls into the same category as a lot of films marketed to be all ages pleasers in that it has a very simple, very predictable story. It's not a bad thing and I won't harp on it in this review. In fact there's a moment near the end, which kind of blew my mind. I of course won't write details about it here, but I will write around it later. I will write that that ending nearly saved the whole of the story for me, but I couldn't completely discount everything that came before, so my quick opinion is it's good, not great.
I do love the incredibly detailed world building that goes into a Pixar film. The level of lore and design is always impeccable. I loved the bright colors, the identifiable mythical creatures and the way they behave and interact with each other. It feels like this could be a real realm somewhere that you could reach out and touch. They never sacrifice the humanity of the characters for that detail either. The characters are always relatable and feel fully fleshed out.
Disney is also inching toward something resembling a better mix of intersectional representation. There are all kinds of body types, interracial/interspecies couples, visible characters with a disability, and even a same sex couple. Don't start the flag waving and the crying out in praise just yet, though. The character, Officer Spector, played by Lena Waithe, does make reference to her girlfriend. Yet, it's just that. We aren't given a scene with the two of them together or any other contextual scenes or lines, which means when the film goes over seas and gets dubbed, the line can easily be changed, removed or adapted to suit the heteronormative needs of the country its in. Like I wrote, inching, ever inching, but I'll take any progress over no progress whatsoever.
Though, with all that's unsurprising about it, Onward does have an incredibly surprising and powerful climax. Like I wrote, I won't spoil it for anyone reading this, but I will tiptoe around it. What the Pixar story team does really well is adding emotional heft to a film. It lands almost every time because they've taken the time to sprinkle the seeds of those big moments into the smaller moments of the film. You're reminded it's the little things that make up life, even the life of a character and that there're no accidents in storytelling. The character's reflection can change their perspective as it does for Ian as he comes to a crossroads at the end and makes the totally unexpected choice, but also the best choice. It hit me very hard during a movie I was enjoying, but not necessarily responding to fully.
Voice acting is like all acting in that it takes your whole body and emotion. Their chemistry from the voice work makes me hope for the buddy movie between Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Octavia Spencer. It's so rare that Octavia Spencer would get the role of the badass hero of legend, but I hope she can parlay her fabulous work here into her live action career. We've also seen Julia Louis-Dreyfus play mother characters before, but none with such a well rounded and full life of her own as Laurel. She is the powerful warrior woman ready for adventure.
I recommend you see Onward for the incredible world building and the gorgeous animation. I'll be thinking about how they pulled off that ending long into the year. I'll also be hoping that Onward makes enough money to warrant Disney creating a real version of the role-playing game in the film because that looks fun and I want to battle a bunch of gelatinous cubes.