Onward is set in a fantasy world wherein magic has essentially faded away thanks to the convenience of technology. Think Dungeons and Dragons by way of Zootopia.
Our heroes are two elves, the introverted Ian (Tom Holland) and his brash-but-goofy older brother Barley (Chris Pratt). On Ian’s 16th birthday, he receives a wizard staff and gem from their long-deceased father, as well as a spell to bring him back for 24 hours. However, the spell goes wrong halfway through, the gem is destroyed and dad only returns in the form of a sentient pair of legs. The two then ride off on a quest to find another gem and complete the spell before time runs out.
Pixar is known for creating new worlds that you genuinely feel excited to see each new nook and cranny, or what new characters will appear. From the get-go, that special something feels missing here. The idea of magic being mostly faded away by technology is good, but it never really takes that much advantage of that idea. Instead, Onward ’s peppered with a lot of obvious gags that have been done better not just in other road trip movies, but even within Pixar’s own catalogue.
It’s not until the last leg of Onward where things start to pick up. Director Dan Scanlon has stated that this is a very personal story for him, the inspiration stemming from his own childhood. That emotional core is definitely the strongest part of Onward. The bond between Ian and Barley feels genuine and incredibly relatable. They managed to wring a few tears out of me at the very last minute because Pixar is still great at emotionally destroying people.
Both Holland and Pratt give solid performances as the two brothers, although they both feel like exact replicas of characters they’ve done in the past. Ian is essentially just an elvish Peter Parker, and Barley is, well, every character Chris Pratt’s ever played. The supporting cast is equally solid; with Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the boys’ mother Laurel, and Octavia Spencer being the main comedic highlight as Corey, a manticore/manager of a Chuck E. Cheese-style restaurant.
The biggest problem with Onward is one that isn’t entirely its fault. As a stand-alone animated film, Onward is just a solid-yet-forgettable animated adventure. Coming from Pixar though, this is a noticeable step down from their previous works. It never approaches the heights of something like Toy Story, Finding Nemo or even Coco. It’s a slightly unfair comparison, but considering the pedigree of what came before, it’s impossible not to do so. It’s still definitely better than any of the Cars movies, and still worth a watch if you are a die-hard Pixar fan, but this movie is just missing the magic that it really needs to get going.