The biggest problem with Pixar movies is the high bar they’ve set for themselves. Every time a new Pixar film arrives on the scene, it must be compared to the studios highest achievements, and while the studio should endeavor to keep meeting a high level of quality, the “How does it rank?” question can sometimes miss when the studio releases a film that’s just sweet and lovely and funny even if it doesn’t reach the dizzying highs of an Inside Out or Toy Story 2. Once you leave aside questions of how Dan Scanlon‘s Onward stands alongside other Pixar movies, you’ll be left with the kind of magical and emotional buddy picture that is simply the studio’s brand at this point. With an imaginative setting and an endearing duo at its center, Onward is a lovely tale about overcoming fear and the unique bond between brothers.
The setting of Onward is basically “What if the Industrial Revolution hit a fantasy setting?” The world of Onward has elves, dragons, centaurs, etc., but it also has all of our modern conveniences that outweigh the benefit of things like magic and quests. Into this world we meet Ian (Tom Holland), a shy 16-year-old elf, and his nerdy older brother Barley (Chris Pratt). Ian’s father died before he was born and Barley barely has any memories of his dad, but on Ian’s 16th birthday, they’re gifted a magical staff that can bring their dad back for one day. However, when the crystal they need shatters in the middle of the spell, it only brings back their dad’s legs. With the clock ticking, Ian and Barley set out on a quest to find a new crystal so they can finish getting their dad back for one day.
If you like classic, high fantasy settings inspired by stuff like Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering, you’ll love what Scanlon and his team have done here with Onward. This is one of those movies you’ll want to go through frame-by-frame to catch all the fun details and Easter eggs like “Stop” signs reading “Halt”. There’s clearly been a lot of love and attention paid to making this blend of high fantasy and mundane reality come to life, and I was thrilled just to spend time in a place that’s so different from what we’ve seen before.
Of course, this being a Pixar movie, it utilizes the buddy movie plot, but the approach works because the relationship between Ian and Barley is the point of Onward. Rather than a narrative convenience of how these two characters play off each other with the nervous Ian contrasted against the overconfident Barley, their relationship is the core of the story. It’s also where Onward really moved me personally. I also grew up in a single-parent household raised by my mom, and I was the nerdy older brother. So yes, I personally related to the central bond in Onward, but even if you’re not a big brother who loved his Magic: The Gathering cards, you should find plenty that’s charming and funny in this film.
Some may find that Pixar is retracing its steps a bit with a buddy road trip movie where one of the characters has to learn to overcome his fears (a la Finding Nemo), but Onward rarely feels formulaic because its characters and setting are so specific. It never comes off like Scanlon is working in broad strokes, and he knows the exact point he wants to reach with this story, which, Pixar being Pixar, will have you laughing constantly until the climax reduces you to a puddle of tears.
At this point in its 25-year history of producing feature films, Pixar is competing with itself in some sense. Chances are if you’ve seen one Pixar movie, you’ve seen most of their filmography, which in turn begs comparison between their pictures. That comparison has its place as fodder for discussion, but it can overlook what these movies are attempting to achieve on their own. Onward plays like a deeply personal story that just happens to come from the biggest, most popular animation house on the planet. Sure, it uses a familiar framework the studio tends to employ, but at no point does Onward come off like a retread. Instead, Onward feels like a new adventure, and one I’m excited to revisit.
Onward is now available to stream on Disney+