Written by: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin
Starring: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Mel Rodriguez
When we spend our lives yearning for something out of reach, the answer may be right under our nose, just not in the conventional manner as expected. This occurs in the search for a father figure for the young elf in Onward, where a journey of connection accomplishes much more than expected. While not coming close to the heights of other Pixar features, this film makes its marks when necessary and presents a pleasant experience.
Shy and awkward Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) lives noting the absence of his father, who died shortly after his birth. The young elf lives with his very enthusiastic older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), who believes in the magic of old and some RPG games. With Ian turning 16, their mother reveals a gift the father saved for when they reached adulthood. The gift ensured the opportunity for the father to return for one more day, but the spell does not work out exactly as planned.
The world created in Onward establishes a place where fairytale creatures exist that once lived with the power of magic, but as technology has advanced, it has become forgotten. Instead of flying and using wings, fairies and other winged creatures opted to use modern transportation as an example. All of these creatures have conformed so much to their surroundings, any magical aspects of their identity become suppressed, which obviously serves as an allegory for the good ol’ days. It sets the standard as to why Barley’s way of thinking stands out compared to everyone else, as he studies all of the spells of old, but does not possess the gift to utilize it. Ian possesses the gift and with the spell brings the father back, but it only brings his lower half, from the belt down to his shoes. The rest of the story becomes a quest to finish the spell before their 24 hours run out and he disappears for good.
This journey certainly becomes personal for the two brothers because the relationship they have with their father differs. Ian never met him but longs to have all of the moments he knows sons get to experience with their father, which includes playing catch and learning different life lessons. Barley, on the other hand, was a young kid when the father passed and struggled to cope with how their relationship concluded. This journey has plenty of emotional stakes, but the appearance of the father in the film could not be looked over because it’s simply ridiculous. Having the lower half of him just looks dumb no matter how much it makes sense for narrative purposes. The screenwriters wanted the presence of the father without having him speak, but there could have been better ways to visualize this, especially with the lack of consistency of what the father can hear and communicate.
With essentially there only being legs, tapping each other’s feet becomes their primary mode of communication because the father cannot hear or speak to them. However, this consistency gets broken in moments like when he dances to music and suddenly can find his sons even if the legs cannot see. If they want to make the point of having the legs, then it needs to remain for those purposes. Otherwise, it cheapens the entire exercise.
Those moments can be overlooked because the film has such a touching message about fatherhood. On this journey, they hit several roadblocks allowing different bonding moments for the brothers and the father. The way Onward handles these moments leading up to the end salvages the film because it makes a poignant point about fatherhood in an unexpected manner. The path it took was not obvious but turned out to be the one the story needed and when looking back on it all, the conclusion properly gets right at the heart of the story.
World-building becomes a large part of Onward, as it continually introduces a whole host of different creatures. With each of them being a combination of known folklore and those created for this movie, seeing the equivalent to the human world became a fun exercise. Apparently, unicorns are equal to what we have as bats, which did not make sense but definitely shows how the screenwriters feel about these mythical creatures. Every new creature introduction continues to display the top-notch animated work by Pixar and how rich and filled the characters look.
Certainly would not crack the top ten Pixar films, Onward will certainly produce some tears and proves to be such a cute movie with its message and the progression of the story. It has moments of basic storytelling, but it has enough with its emotional moments and world-building to provide a singular experience where it can entertain the children and have an impactful conversation about father figures.