Onward (2020) Review

Onward marks Pixar’s much-needed return to the original storytelling — their first since the Oscar-winning Coco back in 2017. Inspired by the director’s (Dan Scanlon) personal experience who lost his father when he was only 1 year old, the latest Pixar movie takes us to the fantastical world of New Mushroomton, where mythical creatures from wizards and fairies to elves and unicorns live in the way that human does in the modern-day reality.

Earlier in the film, we are told that magic and spells used to dominate the olden days until modern technology changes everything once and for all. At the heart of the film is two elf brothers Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) and his older sibling Barley (Chris Pratt) Lightfoot, who lives with their widowed mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). On the day of Ian’s 16th birthday, their mother handed over a gift she’s been storing in the attic for years to both of them. A gift that turns out to be a wizard’s staff where their late father (Kyle Bornheimer) left behind prior to his death.

Ian, who’s been longing to get to know his father, finally has his wish comes true. Apparently, the staff along with the accompanied Phoenix Stone allows him to bring him back to life, even though it only lasts a day. However, the spell works halfway before the stone destroyed into pieces and ends up showing their father’s appearance only from the waist down.

Fortunately, there’s a hope to meet their father in his entirety as they have 24 hours to track down another Phoenix Stone and complete the magic.

In what could have been an emotionally-penetrating film showcasing how far a person would go to see their father one last time even if it’s just a short while, co-writer and director Dan Scanlon (2013’s Monsters University) chose to tread familiar ground by incorporating the age-old road-movie formula, charting the two elf brothers’ quest from one place to another.

Given its fantastical setup, I was expecting the journey is — to put it, bluntly — magical. But it feels like a road we’ve travelled repeatedly before in the past (read: clichés), with all the obligatory side characters, car chases, goofball comedy moments and characters spend time bickering at each other. It’s not like the movie is totally lacking a sense of fun and adventure but since this is a Pixar animation we’re talking about. So, it’s natural to have a bigger expectation but the inventive storytelling we used to grow accustomed to Pixar’s films is somewhat missing. Instead, what we have here is more of an animated film made from an assembly line and has a Pixar logo slapped onto it.

Still, viewing this strictly as an animated feature in general, Onward does provide plenty of decent entertainment values for the kids and families. The animation, as expected, is top-notch and at least Scanlon deserves credit for bringing out the best in Tom Holland and Chris Pratt’s voice performances as Ian and Barley Lightfoot. They show excellent sibling chemistry, which in turn, one of the lifesavers that help to prevent the film from sinking into mediocrity. The rest of the voice performances are also given ample times to shine, notably Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ role of a widowed mother and Octavia Spencer as the manticore who holds the map location of the Phoenix Stone’s whereabouts.

Upon arriving in the third act, this is where Onward finally revealed its true magic — a much-needed jolt of a heartwarming finale and even comes complete with an engaging battle scene involving a dragon. If only, the rest of the film has the same storytelling strength proven in the third act, Onward would have been qualified as another great Pixar animation.