Onward: Ian and Barley

Film Review: Onward by Pixar

With everyone cooped up at home, viewership on streaming services has predictably surged. My Mom and I recently finished Season 3 of Fauda (I highly recommend the series!), but today I want to review a kid-friendly film. Onward, Pixar’s latest release, is available on Disney Plus. Onward is worth a watch, as are all of Pixar’s films (except for Cars 2 and Cars 3). Even so, Onward is a bit of a let down, given Pixar’s high standards.

Onward has all the necessary ingredients for a good film. There’s an attractive setting: a modernized suburban fantasyland. The story, about two alienated brothers coming together over a quest to meet their deceased father, touches a few sweet spots. As with every Pixar movie, the 3D modelling and animation offers much to appreciate. I especially enjoyed the wide shots of natural scenery. Pixar’s animators clearly had fun making the dad’s fake upper body bobble back and forth on his aimless pair of legs. Tom Holland and Chris Pratt brought their characters alive through excellent voice acting. All this works together to make a good film. The recipe works. But when looking at the details, Pixar’s magical flare feels missing.

When I first saw the trailer some months ago, I felt ambivalent. The premise of mixing modern suburbia with fantasy had much to offer. I hoped Pixar would pull off a wonderful film that weaves together these two disparate worlds into a dazzling continuum. It wouldn’t be easy, but Pixar is known to step up to challenges. Unfortunately, I feel Pixar could have done much better in this regard.

Most representations of fantasyland were based on familiar stereotypes. The few rules for magical powers are painfully simplistic, even uncreative (“You have to speak from your heart’s fire”). Pixar lazily lobbed together fantasyland with suburbia, killing any suspension of disbelief. I love looking out for Pixar’s Easter eggs, but most of them felt quite contrived.  For example, one restaurant was named “Burger Shire,” which just doesn’t feel authentic at all. (I did appreciate the “NOW SERVING 2ND BREAKFAST” sign and the “Longbottom $6.59” sticker.) A location on the map is labelled “LOCH LAKE,” which is inane, as it means “Lake Lake.” Why is the van named Guinevere? (Seriously, if you have a hunch, please comment below.) Fantasy realms and the middle ages offer such a rich cultural backdrop to the world of Onward, and this is what Pixar came up with? Taking basic concepts from Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons does not really count as going above and beyond–which I expect from Pixar. Pixar consulted chefs when making Ratatouille, but I wonder whether they consulted a medievalist or the likes of Alan Lee for Onward. I had hoped for better, deeper integration of this promising hybrid culture. Instead, Pixar mostly offered puns and stereotypical references.

You may point out that surface-level stereotypes of fantasyland appeal to the most viewers, and you would be right. I see no problem in doing so. However, Pixar has always worked out ways to speak to different levels of their audience. Pixar never limits itself to the lowest common denominator, or adults would not care for their films. As a fan of fantasy and a student of the middle ages, I would have liked to see more depth in their worldbuilding. They could have easily taken a concept from the Aberdeen Bestiary, for example, or thrown in a subtle reference to the Bayeux Tapestry, or included Telperion and Laurelin growing somewhere in the wilderness. Most of all, I wish there were more scenes which let the audience fill in the gaps with their own imagination. This would have required careful worldbuilding to create an atmosphere that feels authentic. Overall, the world of Onward came off as a fun idea, a clever thought experiment, but not a world to live or play in.

Onward also employed a few lazy tricks. Some scenes contained unnecessary action to get the heart beating, even though none of it ended up mattering. I can allow for some of this since Onward takes on the genre of the hero’s journey, and otherwise unnecessary stressful scenes ultimately act as bonding moments between the brothers. Still, the cliffhanger at the invisible bridge scene felt cheap and predictable.

As a Pixar fan, I felt slightly disturbed by Onward. Hollywood meets the high demand for family films with low quality flicks, but Pixar offers a noble deviation from this trend, consistently releasing a high-quality family film every summer. What’s more, everyone admires Pixar for its ability to appeal to kids on the literal level while including winks to the parents in their audience. Although Onward is child-friendly, it didn’t always feel catered to children. There was casual extramarital kissing and a conversation about how maddening raising children can be. I have no problem with these bits in the context of the film, as they play a relevant role in depicting the difficult relationships. What disturbs me is the possibility of a growing insensitivity to Pixar’s primary audience: children.

Thus far, I have probably sounded quite grumpy, a bit pedantic, and much too hard to please. Much of my criticism is biased by my personal obsession with all things medieval and fantastical. (Perhaps a neuroscientist would find himself disappointed by Inside Out. I adore Inside Out.) I should reiterate: I enjoyed Onward, and perhaps I will watch it again some time to better appreciate some of its details. I don’t want to give away the good parts, but here are some things I liked about Onward.

I strongly believe that kids’ movies should not shy away from difficult topics, and I appreciate that Onward tackled the absent father problem head-on. The film also plays with some complex themes. Although it constantly promised a show of magic and adventure, it didn’t really want to fulfill that promise. The movie’s name is Onward, and it did not want to bring us back to the days of yore. Instead, by taking a quick trip into the past, the brothers learned not to take the present for granted. Few movies nowadays deal deeply with brotherhood. The relationship between the brothers developed especially well, so props go to Onward for that.

Pixar looks to push the envelope with every film it makes. Sadly, I do not feel Onward met its potential. The characters and story make for a touching film, but attention to detail feels lackluster. I place Onward in the lower half of Pixar films: worth a watch, but not one of the greats.

Pixar has scheduled Soul for release this November. It’s directed by Pete Docter, one of my favorite Pixar directors. I look forward to it with high expectations!


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