BY CHRISTOPHER HASKELL
APRIL 5, 2020
“On a quest the clear path is never the right one.”— Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt)
As we waded into the waters of the animated film “Onward,” my seven-year-old daughter posed me this question: in the context of the film, would I rather live in either the magic-filled world of yesteryear, where wizards and unicorns are prevalent or the current year, where magic is a thing of the past and unicorns are cave-dwelling, trash eaters? Much to my surprise, my answer was the current year, because, although it’s not as prominent as it once was, magic still exists and, now, means so much more.
From the marketing, I presumed “Onward” was one of Pixar’s phoned-in entries. Yes, not all Pixar films are winners. Does anyone remember “The Good Dinosaur?” To some degree, it is superficial. But it also transforms into so much more.
Phoned-in doesn’t translate to terrible film. Even when Pixar is simply going through the motions, the main characters are usually still worthwhile. The story of “Onward” centers around two brothers that lost their father at a very young age. When the youngest brother turns sixteen, their mother (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) presents them their father’s final gift; a staff, a gem, and a spell to bring him back for 24 hours.
The brothers are the only dynamic characters, but they are well worth the film alone. Ian Lightfoot, voiced by Tom Holland, is the younger brother. He’s scared of everything, from learning how to drive to inviting friends to a makeshift birthday party. His older brother, Barley, voiced by Chris Pratt, is a role-playing nerd on an extended “gap” year who drives around a busted van named “Guinevere” with an exalted unicorn painted on the side. Both of the brothers are so expertly written and voiced, they easily capture your attention.
Personally, as the father of two young girls who lost their mother last year, the parallels between their lives and the lives of the brothers in “Onward” is remarkable. The struggles these brothers faced and how their hopes and dreams were shaped by the loss of their father truly felt like my own personal looking glass into my girls’ futures.
Of the two boys, Barley has a few memories of his father, but Ian was too young to remember anything about him. All he has are pictures and a recording of his voice. So, with a list of things he wants to do with his dad in 24 hours, Ian attempts the spell to bring back his father. However, when the gem shatters halfway through the spell, the brother realizes they only conjured the feet and legs of their father. They decide to go on a quest to find another gem to finish the spell and bring their entire father back. Much like the spell, the film ends up feeling a little half-baked from there.
None of the other characters are that interesting or even well voiced. Whereas, in a film like “Frozen,” you have a core of four or five strongly voiced and developed characters, “Onward” only has the two. Everything from the manticore (voiced by Octavia Spencer) to the motorcycle pixies to the police officer centaur (voiced by Mel Rodriguez) all lack in the development department. None of them are compelling and their story arcs never quite come to fruition the way they do with the brothers. What they boil down to are stepping stones for the brothers on their adventure.
The ticking clock is the 24 hours, with the brothers racing against time to see their dad, who they so desperately want to see. They do their best bonding with the lower half of their dad, as they give him a “Weekend at Bernie’s” style top half. You get so caught up and captivated by the expedition that by the time the revelation comes, you get the wind completely knocked out of you.
Dealing with my very own loss and feeling very deeply for my girls and what they’re going through, having lost their mother, I was probably an easy target for “Onward.” However, the revelation the youngest boy encounters had me in tears. Not only was it extremely touching, but it veers off from any expectations you may have leading up it. That revelation is magical in its own right. So yes, not all the characters are fully-formed, not all of the adventure is pristine, but “Onward” is still well worth the trip.
March 6, 2020
Walt Disney Pictures
Pixar Animation Studios
(for action/peril and some mild thematic elements)
AMC Burbank 16 w/ AMC A-List on March 8, 2020
Disney+ on April 4, 2020