After two years of Pixar devoting themselves to long overdue sequels to beloved original material, 2020 looks to be a return to new stories for the studio. There’s nothing wrong with Incredibles 2 or Toy Story 4. Indeed, the latter was the best animated feature of last year and easily stood alongside the previous three films, but I couldn’t help but miss the pure innovation of new material from Pixar with original and engaging premises which hopefully would go on to become classics comparable to the rest in its canon. The first of this year’s two offerings: Onward, does just that, providing a magical adventure, and one that is guaranteed to tug at the heartstrings, as all the best Pixar does so well.
Following brothers Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) in a fantasy world which has given up its magic in favour of 21st Century Earth technology, Onward follows their quest to bring back that magic and revive their dead father for a day. First things first, cue the water works. Yes, with a dead dad in the synopsis, this movie falls victim to the classic Pixar habit of exploiting every fibre of emotion in a single scene. I’m beginning to think that part of an employee’s contract is that they must have eliciting tears from audience members as their main objective whenever a film is made. To be fair however, why criticise this is they’re so effective every time? Indeed, Onward is pure Pixar heartbreak and that’s never a bad thing.
But what makes the film stand out is its broad range of thematic richness and interesting points of conversation that come together in a tight and succinct story. Unlike other children’s movies (most recently the awful Sonic the Hedgehog), Onward is a meaty film that never stalls in presenting complex material wrapped in an fantastical package. Themes covered include the typical (family, brotherhood and grief) while also exploring much more unique topics like embracing a pre-industrialised world (particularly pertinent in the age of the climate emergency), and acknowledging the faceless corporatism that diminishes the authenticity of cultures. Indeed, it may be called Onward, but the film devotes some time evaluating the merits of the technological “progress” of our time. One particular scene brings this theme to life through the characters debating whether to get to their destination on the old “pass of peril” or the modern expressway. In all, the film is a fascinating mix of heady material, and it succeeds in squarely being a four-quadrant picture.
Visually, Onward is also stunning. Dan Scalon’s world is ripe for colourful and imaginative designs, and it’s clear every effort was taken to make the film as aesthetically engaging as possible. The predominance of purples and other dark tones suited the references to high fantasy while also being fun and pulpy, thus taking itself seriously while staying light and geared towards children.
If the trappings of kids movies affect this film at all, it’s possibly in its story structure, one which relies too heavily on established formula. It’s very much a “we’ve got to get from A to B” kind of story, and the plot is punctuated with a fresh action sequence every 10 or so minutes. After a while, it becomes a little stale, and each dilemma reads as a narrative device of artificially creating a sense of peril in order to keep younger viewers engaged. In truth, the story didn’t necessarily need these formulaic sequences, as the visual and emotional storytelling does enough of the heavy lifting. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it brings down the film a whole lot. Most of the action moments are helmed well and diversify themselves through varying levels of tension, but opposed to the otherwise intelligent narrative, it was arguably the least clever aspect.
And of course, the third act hits you like a train with the feels. Cue the violins, because if you cry easily at movies, prepare yourself…
8.5/10: Onward is a fantastic addition to the Pixar canon, boasting an immensely smart and visually stunning story.