Onward movie review: Pixar's new film has a strong emotional premise but relies too heavily on slapstick humour
Onward follows the lives of two elf brothers, Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt), and their quest to reunite with their long-deceased father briefly.
castTom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-dreyfus, Octavia Spencer
Onward, premiered at the Berlinale, comes from the 21-film strong Pixar Animation Studios that has built itself a formidable reputation for animated features. From Toy Story to Ratatouille to the latest global hit Inside Out, Pixar’s products are synonymous with brilliance in animated entertainment that create magic with technical know-how and relatable onscreen characters.
Director Dan Scanlon’s (from Monster University) earnest attempt to recreate Pixar’s previous successes with Onward though needed more than just animated pixie dust (or, is it pixar dust?). Even as it relies on a standard fare storyline, reliance on over the top and sometimes slapstick humor and thinly fleshed out characters reduce the ability of the characters to connect emotionally with the audience, despite its delightful animation that’d make any child shriek in delight.
Onward orbits the lives of two elf brothers – the socially awkward Ian (voice-over by Tom Holland) and goofball Barley (Chris Pratt) - and their quest to reunite with their long-deceased father by using a magic staff studded with a crystal. Ian, who lives with his mother, voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, receives a birthday gift left to him by his father. Ian never had the opportunity to spend time with his father and the gift that transforms into a magical staff with a crystal will aide him to find his father and reunite with him briefly.
While trying to make the trick work, Ian’s magic is stalled halfway by his brother Barley, leaving only their father’s legs reincarnated. The brothers set out on an adventure trip – with their father’s legs tied to them – to restore the magic crystal, looking for clues across the landscape, aided by a rundown car and chased by suspicious cops and their mother. The film is populated by elves, half-horse creatures, nasty bike riding human bumble-bees and even a fire breathing creature that is a cross between a dragon and a lion.
Scanlon says he drew inspiration for the story from his real life – his father passed away when was only a year old – and that Onward is a, “journey to find out who you’re going to grow to be and how it relates to your family.” It’s a poignant premise and a watertight screenplay that exploits the emotional aspects of an awkward boy’s journey to reconnect with his father, and it would have made the film relatable like Pixar’s previous hits. But it is unfortunate that Onward couldn’t achieve that relatability despite rising out of a strong emotional premise.
So. what ensues is a comic caper ride, perhaps fit for a road trip film, but here it feels like the focus is being pulled away for the benefit of slapstick humour. Same goes with what the film is trying to achieve with its other themes and ideas. Hidden in plain sight is the implication that the world has lost its magic to technological advancements like automobiles and smartphones. That nostalgia falls by the wayside as soon as it’s introduced and is never exploited to the benefit of the film.
Production designer Noah Klocek has gone to town with his designs, enabling the animators to often fill the screen with delightful Pixar standard animation wonderland. But from a company that made young people root for a clownfish for more than a decade, the animation here feels distinctly less inspired.
Despite boasting of an impressive voice lineup of big-ticket actors such as Octavia Spencer, Lena Waithe and Ali Wong, Onward somehow never manages to capitalise on their innate comical abilities. Even as he is a sidekick, Pratt’s Barley remains the film’s highlight.
Even as it’s populated by some interesting animated elves, Onward’s overall look never manages to rise above average. Failing to capitalise on what could have been a promising storyline of nostalgia blended with adventure, Onward’s screenplay nevertheless fails to hit the sweet spot between the emotional and the animation. It bears mentioning that Onward’s audience are children, a group not exactly known for critical discernment, so box office success perhaps won’t be elusive. Added to that, the film may benefit from the lack of other animated features during its release in March.
Don’t go questioning how the silly world-building details make any canonical sense in the grander scheme of biological evolution. Simply bask in the zany delight.
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