Onward (2020), a Fantasy Film Rooted in the Mundane

I must admit that when the first trailer for Onward dropped, it was far away from my radar. In my opinion, apart from a few examples here and there, Pixar have recently been producing more misses than hits for me. I was slightly curious about Onward, as it is normally their original IP’s that end up better than the recent slew of sequels. But the art style, premise and casting of the lead actors did nothing for me. So when I saw the trailer I was resigned to wait until the film dropped on streaming services to check it out. Well because of their early rental releases that opportunity came sooner than expected, but the majority of my fears ended up being realised…

The opening of the film is already groan-inducing. We’re treated to a prologue that sets up the history of magic in the world and how the inhabitants gave up on magic because it was too hard, and relied on the easier to use technology.  As we’re told that the magic slowly faded out of the world the screen transitions to a goblin using a smartphone. No, I’m serious. It’s a cringe-inducing cheap shot that plays into the boomer mentality of “smart phone bad”. Later on when we’re shown characters who have forgone their mystical natures in lieu of the ease of technology (for example the centaur police officer who doesn’t take advantage of his running ability and opts to drive his patrol car instead, or the Manticore who doesn’t use her wings), but if the message of the film is “technology bad”, the film never really rectifies this message as the technology is bad when it suits the film, but doesn’t highlight how the technology is often really useful for the characters too (literally the plot of the film wouldn’t be able to happen if the two main elf characters didn’t have access to a car). Maybe I’m looking too deeply into this prologue’s message but to me it just highlights a lack of cohesion in the script for me. 

The bulk of the film is concerned with the two Elf brothers, Ian & Barley Lightfoot (Tom Holland & Chriss Pratt, respectively) going on a quest for the ‘Phoenix Gem’ to complete the visitation spell their deceased father left them in order to let him visit for a day, after their first gem breaks half-way through the spell, leaving the brothers only with the legs of their Father with them. The film is told mainly through the perspective of Tom Holland’s Ian, who was too young to remember his father, and thus the film is framed as his journey to not only live up to his father’s legacy, but also a desperate journey in order to meet the missing father figure in his life. My understanding is the story’s premise was devised after director, Dan Scanlon, was given an audio recording of his father, who he lost at an early age. The film’s premise undoubtedly has a lot of heart, even before knowing Scanlon’s personal input into it, and it is one thing that I cannot fault the film for in the slightest. Unfortunately for me, it’s the rest of the plot that clutters the film, after the first act when the journey begins, the film becomes almost episodic; with each sequence flowing somewhat awkwardly into the next. And each time it’s the same formula over and over again; Barley gets Ian to learn a new spell or pushes him to develop in some way, Ian fails at first, but with encouragement/tension he is forced into succeeding, and he comes out the other end stronger. It’s basic and repetitive, and it’s the same in the tavern scene, the pixie chase, the crossing the gap, the disguise scene, and then (shock) all of these skills he’s learnt come together to help him defeat the evil curse in the climax. It’s almost copied and pasted over and over again in the film. That’s not to say these scenes aren’t fun, I still enjoyed quite a few of these sequences, some more than others admittedly, but from a plot perspective it’s definitely lacking overall. 

The saving grace of the film is the third act, after a seemingly unsuccessful quest, the brothers finally locate the phoenix gem, but in doing so unwittingly unleash a curse that forms into the shape of a dragon. The ensuing fight waivers in quality at the start, but everything after the watershed realisation moment for Ian, is fantastically directed and played out. I didn’t fully expect the emotional climax to play out like it did, the film does get to a point where it clicks before we are shown it, but it was a nice subversion of what I expected going in. 

The animation is, as expected from Pixar, sublime. The advancements in animation technology from film to film always amazes me, and while I wasn’t massively keen on the style of this film, the technical side of the animation is undoubtedly amazing. One thing I noticed in this film was the particle animation used in this film, in the opening scenes you can see the dust float through the light with such attention to detail. Similarly the level of detail and animation that went into the dragon during the final fight is fantastic, I don’t want to give away too much detail about it, but the way it’s designed so intricately is wonderful and animates so well.

While Onward won’t go down as my favourite Pixar film, the heart and charm of the film will definitely stick out in the studio’s filmography. I do think that, despite my opinion of this film and the reviews I’ve heard of Monsters University, that Dan Scanlon has a lot of potential going forward as a director. While his craft certainly isn’t as honed in, in the same way as other Pixar colleagues like Lasseter and Bird. But there’s a lot of potential, at least in this film and it’ll be interesting to see where his career goes from now. 



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