Sunday, December 13, 2020


I will admit that when Onward, the first in Pixar’s lineup post-Toy Story 4 to consist entirely of new IPs, was first announced, I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it based on the trailers and so I opted to skip out on it at first. Not helping matters was that the movie suffered from some very bad timing, releasing on the eve of the COVID-19 pandemic and just before movie theaters were forced to close as a result. Not long after, the movie was put out for digital download and on Disney+, though we would not invest in a Disney+ account until much later, with the release of Phineas & Ferb the Movie: Candance Against the Universe. Since we’ve been watching more streaming services during the pandemic, we decided we may as well actually watch Onward before the end of the year. While it did turn out better than I expected, it’s not one of Pixar’s better movies.

The world was once filled with magic, which was very helpful yet difficult to master, until the invention of modern conveniences such as the lightbulb led the world to become more modernized, with magic having all but faded away. On his 16th birthday, an elf named Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) receive a gift from their late father in the form of a magic staff and a Phoenix Gem, along with a magic spell that can bring him back for one day so he could see how his sons turned out. After multiple failed attempts by Barley to cast the spell, Ian, who never knew his father and wants nothing more than to see him, manages to cast it, however the spell goes awry, leaving only their father’s bottom half materialized. With 24 hours until the spell wears off, Ian and Barley set off on a quest to locate another Phoenix Gem so they can cast it again and bring back the rest of their father.

Barley (Chris Pratt, left) and Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland, right)
are on a quest to bring their father back to life for one day.

The general story beats aren’t completely original, as it details the two brothers struggling to get along and how Ian starts out as more of an introvert and becomes increasingly confident over the course of the movie. What is interesting, however, is the way the story incorporates its unique urban fantasy setting into the story, which leaves a lot of room for exploration. The story itself also has an interesting flavor, taking some heavy influence from Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) to the point where it plays out like a full campaign, up to and including an official D&D creature making an extended cameo. As someone with a limited second-hand knowledge of D&D who has recently been trying to dip my toe into the game, going so far as to pick up the recently-released Adventure Begins starter set, I could see the influence after giving it some thought when this was pointed out to me.

As to be expected from Pixar, the visuals are really good, with some very fluid animation and interesting magical effects. The modernized fantasy world the movie presents is a lot more cleverly designed than I initially gave it credit for from the trailers, such as the idea of the Manticore’s tavern having since been converted into a more family-friendly establishment and a background nod to Pizza Planet from Toy Story, and the attention to detail really makes it come alive. Despite this, I felt this unique world wasn’t explored as well as it could have, something I could also say about Disney’s Zootopia.

What helps the story are some casting choices that worked out far better than I initially anticipated. Chris Pratt and Tom Holland, whom many may recognize as Peter Quill/Star Lord and Peter Parker/Spider-Man respectively in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, play off each other surprisingly and convincingly well, though Chris Pratt can come off as channeling Jack Black at times. Among the supporting characters, Octavia Spencer brings a lot of charisma and energy to the Manticore role that makes her an enjoyable character, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus does well as Laurel Lightfoot, Ian and Barley’s concerned mother who goes through a small character arc of her own.

One thing I felt I should mention is that, while preparing to write this review, I found out that the D&D-like game Quests of Yore that’s seen in the movie is on track to become a real board game early next year. Not only that, while they could easily have made it a licensed D&D module that would still have worked with the movie’s merchandising, they’re going out of their way to make Quests of Yore a full tabletop experience on its own, even labeling it Barley’s Edition as a further tie-in with what’s shown on-screen. Though I might not pick up a copy of the game for myself, I can still appreciate when a licensed product like this actually has a lot of effort put into it rather than a cheap cash grab.

The amount of effort being put into this is
enough to appreciate on its own.

Onward isn’t one of Pixar’s better movies in recent memory, though it’s certainly not one of their worst. The world and the framing of the story are interesting, even if the story itself isn’t wholly original despite being fairly well-written. In the end though, this is a good recommendation for Pixar fans and those who remain stuck at home.

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