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Review: Onward (2020)

Onward (2020)

Directed by: Dan Scanlon

Premise: An animated film. Set in a fantasy world, two brothers (voices of Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) discover a magical spell that will resurrect their deceased father for one day. They go on a quest for the gem that will complete the spell.

What Works: Onward is something of a return to form for Pixar. The studio’s feature films have been distinguished by big ideas and imaginative world building but lately Pixar has gotten bogged down in sequels, some of them unnecessary, like Toy Story 4 and Cars 3. Onward is an original story and it displays many of the studio’s strengths. The story emphasizes its characters and grounds the fantasy in accessible human experiences. In this case, the movie is about a pair of brothers who discover a way to connect with their deceased father. This occurs against a larger fantasy world in which magic is real but has been largely abandoned for the convenience of science and technology. The story is about characters getting in touch with their roots but also about a society that has papered over the mystery and meaning of life. The implicit suggestion of the movie is that the conveniences of modern life have alienated us from some essential parts of the human experience and fantasy stories can fulfill that need. The brothers have a clumsy relationship and their road trip binds them together as they discover new things about each other and about themselves. The brothers are voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt and the characters have a convincing sibling relationship and each brother is a distinct character. Something Pixar frequently does in their stories is set characters on a quest and in the process they discover that the thing they thought they wanted isn’t what they really need. Onward does that especially well in the ending and the climax is as emotionally impactful as anything Pixar has created without getting unnecessarily sentimental. This film also has a terrific looking story world. This film plays on the characters and locations of fantasy and mythology and has some fun with them.

What Doesn’t: The story of Onward works through the conventions of a fantasy adventure. The moviemakers are self-aware of what they are doing and frequently acknowledge the way this story fulfills the tropes of a fantasy story. However, the self-awareness doesn’t lead the film or the audience to any new epiphanies about magical quests and what they represent and in the end Onward works through a standard fantasy adventure template.

Bottom Line: Onward is one of Pixar’s better feature films in some time. While it does not quite take full advantage of its premise, the movie does offer a satisfying and emotionally resonant story with some great looking animation.

Episode: #793 (March 15, 2020)