Starring: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Director: Dan Scanlon
Running Time: 102 mins
Onward is an American film about two teenage brothers who, years after losing their father, discover a magical spell to bring him back – only things don’t go quite as they planned.
Bursting with vibrant energy, Onward is a delightful family adventure from beginning to end, bolstered by a sweet, heartfelt atmosphere and a fun-loving sense of humour.
Saying that, it’s far from Pixar’s best work, often proving uncharacteristically lacking in imagination, while also missing out on delivering the story’s strongest emotional potential.
Of course, the standard that I and many others hold Pixar to is far higher than most other studios, but it’s that reputation that makes their films such a joy to watch. And it’s what unfortunately makes Onward – a perfectly good film in its own right – feel a little underwhelming.
But, let’s start on the bright side, because there’s a lot to like about this movie. Above all, Onward is a really fun family adventure. Filled with energy, vibrant visuals and good humour throughout, it’s a movie that will put a smile on your face right from the get-go.
Its first two acts are a little rockier, but the film really gets into its stride as a fantasy adventure come the final act, playing more with classic Pixar imagination, impressing with fast-paced action and hitting home with a few moments of strong emotion.
Onward is far from the studio’s most emotionally intense work, but there is a gorgeous moment very near the end which packs a sucker punch strong enough to get your eyes watering.
Saying that, however, the film’s strengths in its final act are contrasted by its two preceding acts, which are far from spectacular. Again, they’re undeniably enjoyable, and with bright energy at every moment you’ll be laughing and smiling along, but given what the film is ultimately able to do come the final act, they’re also rather underwhelming.
Above all (and extremely uncharacteristically for Pixar), Onward really lacks imagination for the majority of its first two acts. Unlike some of the studio’s best works (Inside Out, Finding Nemo, Coco), which take real-world ideas and sprinkle some movie magic and imagination into the mix, Onward seems a lot like the opposite.
Bringing a world of fantasy and a more mundane suburban environment together is a fun premise, but it’s executed blandly. In that, it feels far more like the film is taking the fun and imagination away from a fantasy world, rather than giving it something more.
That really frustrated me throughout, and it’s a problem that’s compounded by jokes that finish with a fairly repetitive punchline. The humour is good, and it’s all delivered in good fun, but nearly every joke for the first two-thirds is a subversion of the magical expectations of this fantasy world, turning out to be something plainly everyday and mundane.
That repetition further points to a lack of imagination and ideas in Onward, and is ultimately what really makes it lag behind the best Pixar has ever had to offer.
Finally, the film also struggles to deliver consistent and genuinely affecting emotional drama throughout. The story follows two teenage boys trying to find a magical gemstone that allows them to see their father in full, but in the process, the film seems to leave the father (who is just a pair of legs) by the wayside.
In that, it misses the opportunity to tell a really moving story about the boys’ fleeting chance to see their father, too often using the character as a sidekick for little more than comic relief, rather than the emotional role he could have played.
It’s a disappointing oversight from a studio that’s proven time and time again that even the most offbeat stories are full of emotion, and further adds to the feeling that Onward just isn’t a display of what Pixar can really achieve.
Still, I did have a fun time with Onward. Pixar’s daunting reputation aside, it’s a likable, energetic and enjoyable adventure throughout, impressing with nice humour, bright visuals and a sweet, heartfelt atmosphere.
As a fantasy adventure, it works wonderfully, particularly in a final act which is full of both imagination and emotion. Unfortunately, the first two acts don’t quite work as well, disappointing with a surprising lack of imagination and a missed opportunity for consistent emotional drama. However, the film is still enjoyable enough throughout to be worth your time, and that’s why I’m giving Onward a 7.6 overall.