Onward Review (Spoilers)

Onward Review (Spoilers)

“Onward” is an original movie by Disney-Pixar, released digitally on March 20, which was met with a mainly positive reception. 


The film was directed by Dan Scanlon, with voice actors Tom Holland and Chriss Pratt voicing main characters Ian Lightfoot and Barley Lightfoot, respectively. 


The film takes place in a modern fantasy urban setting, with magic existing but mainly ignored in favor of modern technology. Characters are mythical creatures such as trolls, elves, and pixies. 


The movie opens on Ian’s sixteenth birthday, with Ian and Barley’s mother, Laurel, revealing that their father, Wilden, left them a present before he passed. In the gift, Wilden had left the boys a magical staff, instructions for a spell that would raise Wilden from the dead for one day, and a rare Phoenix gem required for a spell powerful enough to do so. 


When Ian performs the spell by accident, only half of their father appears and the Phoenix gem is used up. As a result, Ian and Barley set off on a quest (with only half of their father) for another Phoenix gem necessary to revive the rest of him. 


As a film, it’s great, with well-done animation, interesting setting concepts, heartfelt themes of loss, grief, and an interesting relationship between the two brothers. 


But, as a Pixar and Disney film, it’s not quite the same standard as the studios usually produce, and most reviews on sites such as Rotten Tomatoes seem to agree on that. 


It’s entertaining and good, but not quite incredible. 


While there’s definitely unique elements, there’s also some untapped potential that could have been utilized fully to bring the film to a new level. 


Take the setting, for example. The opening to the movie explains that people used to be more dependent on magic, but it faded over time and became simply history.


Ian goes to a high school, the Lightfoot family has a small dragon that seems to act just as a dog or cat would, the police department exists, vehicles as we know them exist. Minus historical aspects of the setting that only make sense with the existence of magic and mythology, there are scenes with aspects you could change to a human world and nothing would seem different, like some of the car chase scenes, for example.


Disney’s “Zootopia” is a film absolutely rooted in world-building. The movie took great care building a modern setting with very distinct animal aspects. Very few scene shots of the movie would make sense when translated to the human world. And even if the scene itself would make sense, such as two characters talking under a bridge, the dialogue certainly wouldn’t. 


Or, take “Toy Story,” a beloved Pixar film. The characters are all sentient toys, but they don’t have a hidden, secretive toy version of a city that is almost exactly like our world. They move around the human world and have their own societies sometimes, but if they were to be translated into humans, the settings wouldn’t make any sense. The worlds the toys function within also aren’t as complex and complicated as the city of “Zootopia,” but the world-building is just as memorable and unique. 


With “Onward,” there is nothing distinctly fantasy – no matter how small the aspect –  about the world in many possible scenes of the movie. Of course, the characters are noticeably not human in every shot, but the environment around them often looks as if it could have been built by humans with ease, not with magic or special powers or special structures to accommodate diverse mythical creature bodies. 


It’s not necessary to go to the extent of world-building “Zootopia” did, but the movie explored a genre that isn’t entirely common: magic and mythological creatures in the modern-day age, rather than a recreation of medieval times. The world in “Onward” could have been molded and explored as much as the producers wanted to set a new standard, but instead only minimal effort was present, resulting in a film that wasn’t memorable. Other than the Manticore’s Tavern or locations used for their quest, what was really unique to the modern fantasy? 


What was the point of having nonhuman characters if the world they built around them didn’t show much influence from being crafted by nonhumans? I’m sure Disney and Pixar could have imagined a way to dream up why magic was in a world with humans. The most we would have lost was some character aspects relating to stereotypes or humor about their species, and in a film without a human character, the change of species seems like it should be more consequential related to their society.  


As it was a key driving force of the film, the relationship between Ian and Barley was heartwarming, but some of the resolution of some of the conflict between them felt a little rushed. 


In one scene, Ian and Barley have been pulled over by the police and are using a magic spell to appear as if they are their mother’s police officer boyfriend. The rule to the spell is that if you lie, the illusion starts to break. With Ian’s nervous ramblings of lies to the police, body parts began to break from the illusion. A very powerful moment is, in my opinion, when Ian says through the illusion he doesn’t think Barley is a screw-up, part of the illusion breaks right in front of Barley. It’s shocking and it’s hurtful, and it could have been written better. The scene itself is great but the lead-up and the conflict resolution were a little shaky. 


The movie doesn’t really give us enough evidence to explain why Ian would think of Barley as a screw-up. He can be loud, impulsive, and pushy, he plays his board game a lot, he has a lot of parking tickets and a somewhat broken van. At the same time, he’s also 19, and that’s not exactly odd behavior for a teenager. Why is Barley a failure for being too extroverted while Ian is not a failure for being too introverted? 


Ian thinking of his brother as a screw-up feels awfully harsh. He never really properly apologized, either. Their conversation afterward is interrupted by a dancing scene with their father’s lower half which serves as the bonding experience they need to be comfortable with one another again. Siblings don’t always apologize but that feels like an awfully big event to simply move on from and never really return to. 


The ending resulted in some differing reactions, but in my opinion, it was fitting, except I would have preferred they included scenes of Ian and Barley’s childhood throughout the film or established memories of their past sooner so it truly felt more like a payoff. 


I loved the glimpses we saw of romances in the film. We didn’t see much of it but it was refreshing to see a healthy relationship between Laurel (Ian and Barley’s mother) and her new boyfriend. Plus, there was a female police officer who mentioned having a girlfriend, which, for all the controversy and censoring it received in some other countries, was nice to see. It was brief and minimal, but it was still there. 


I do recommend “Onward,” but possibly without expectations related to the quality of Disney or Pixar’s usual productions.