Disney Pixar’s Onward has much of the charm audiences expect from a studio with such a storied pedigree, but there’s also a sense of something missing. Perhaps the missing piece is cohesion or possibly focus, but the film just doesn’t maneuver audiences as smoothly or cleanly for whatever reason as other Pixar films have in the past. Onward is still worth watching, and the family will have a good time, but it won’t be a film that most audiences will remember for long.
Onward Plot Summary
Onward takes place in a magical world populated by the creatures normally associated with high fantasy, like elves, pixies, centaurs, unicorns, dragons, and more. When the movie begins, the world is still young, and magic is what makes everything happen, from lighting fires to warm homes to creating lightshows to entertain audiences. Unfortunately, controlling magic was difficult, and it was easier to solve problems with science. As a result, magic was forgotten, and this fantasy world joined the modern age of electricity, automobiles, and cell phones.
Growing up in this modern world is Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland). He’s an awkward high school teenage elf who’s afraid to drive, afraid to make new friends, and just doesn’t have much self-confidence. That may be due in part to not having a father in his life. Ian’s father passed away before he was born. What Ian does have is an older brother named Barley (voiced by Chris Pratt). Barley is very self-confident – maybe to a fault – and he’s really into tabletop role-playing games – definitely to a fault. So much so that the game has taken over a lot of his life. He talks with elevated speech, like he’s always on the verge of a grand adventure. And he treats his beat-up van like it’s his mighty steed.
On Ian’s sixteenth birthday, his mother (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gives him a gift left to him by Ian’s late father. It’s a magic staff with a special gem and incantation that can bring his father back for one day only. But, when Ian tries to cast the spell, it goes wrong halfway through and only brings his father’s legs back! So, now it’s up to the brothers Ian and Barley – and their father’s legs – to go on a true magical adventure to complete the spell and finally get to spend time with their father.
Overall, the film is adequate. This is a great movie for taking the family to and having a good time with the kids. It’s got action, adventure, familial bonding, and the kind of cathartic sacrifice that speaks to the human condition. And it’ll make you laugh! But there’s also something just a little off that keeps Onward from being truly memorable.
For one, the plot feels overly complicated. I don’t agree that having the father’s legs as a character adds much to the movie. There are a few sight gags that get a good laugh, but overall the legs just feel like a distraction from more important parts of the story.
There are also some minor pacing issues, especially in the beginning. It takes an uncomfortable amount of time to establish the main characters and why we should care about them. In fact, the beginning is so manic that it started to feel a little exhausting. And there are scenes and moments that are established that seem like they’re meant to be paid off somewhere in the film, but they never are.
As a result, Onward feels unfocused. It’s unclear what this movie is about. Most of it is strictly plot-driven – cast the spell to bring dad back – but there’s also a heavy element of brotherly bonding. But what about this rediscovery of magic? Is there a message there about how the old ways are sometimes the best ways? Or that tradition has a place in a progressive world? No one even seems to really care that Ian is the only person they know who can wield magic. Furthermore, in order to succeed, a lot of the characters are convinced to embrace their former selves by, for example, exercising their wings so they can fly again or to stop driving and go running instead because they’re a centaur, and they’re made to run. None of these themes are really explored; they’re just there.
It’s also important to note that Onward feels like it’s made for older audiences in that younger kids probably won’t appreciate a lot of the humor, because it requires specific life experience to understand. For example, the whole idea that playing tabletop roleplaying games isn’t cool isn’t just an idea that young kids won’t get, but even older kids probably won’t get. One almost needs to be much older to remember a time when playing such games was considered nerdy and would result in being ostracized at school. These days “nerd culture” is mainstream, so these story elements may not resonate across all audiences.
Final Thoughts on Onward
Finally, it’s important to reiterate that Onward is still a good, well-done movie. And there are moments of genuinely surprising creativity that are perfectly applied and will have viewers nodding and grinning. So, I recommend watching it. You’re going to have a good time. You just won’t remember it for very long.