After a slew of sequels, Pixar has returned to what originally brought them glory: a buddy film about two characters who learn some things along their way. That’s an oversimplification of ONWARD, which is a beautiful and funny film, but it’s hard to not notice that like some of the original Pixar classics, it relies on two characters taking a journey together and bonding in the process. Oh, and it’s practically designed to extract sobs from the audience. One wonders if Pixar is powered by our tears and MONSTERS, INC. was an allegory of their own pain-collecting power source…
ONWARD checks a lot of boxes for Pixar fans, but it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to, and that’s what makes it refreshing. It feels personal (and for director/co-writer Dan Scanlon, it is) and not committee-driven (sorry TOY STORY 4). There are a boatload of gags, but none bring the story to a halt.
What’s wild is that the world of ONWARD could drive a whole movie in and of itself. A world filled exclusively with magical creatures, none of whom know or embrace that magic, as technology replaced it long ago. Instead of focusing on that conceit, which is a big one, Scanlon and company zero in on the Lightfoot family. Elves living ordinary lives in New Mushroomton, widowed mom Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is preparing to celebrate her younger son, Ian’s (Tom Holland) 16th birthday. His 19 year old brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), still lives at home, has built a van from scratch and is obsessed with a Dungeons & Dragons-esque board game.
Laurel brings a present down from the attic: a wizard staff and custom spell left by her late husband, who died before Ian was born. The spell is meant to bring him back for 24 hours so he can meet his sons. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know that that doesn’t exactly work out, and the boys have 24 hours to fix their spell and get all of their dad back – not just his legs.
If anything, the film could have dived deeper into the consequences of reintroducing magic to the world, but the point of the story isn’t a treatise on the dangers of easy tech. It’s a heart-wrenching look at the void left by a father who died too soon, Ian’s desperate hope to meet him, and the sacrifices he makes to complete that journey. The moment I realized how the ending would shake out I was absolutely furious, because I knew I would be crying my dumb little eyes out and I hadn’t expected the need to bring Kleenex to the screening.
Tom Holland (Spider-Man: Far From Home) is perfect as the nerdy and vulnerable Ian. Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy) could power a small city with the energy he brings to his performance as Barley. Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Veep) gets more to do as Laurel than I anticipated, and frankly, we love to see it. Speaking of love, Octavia Spencer (Ma) is pure joy as the Manticore, giving us a whole spectrum of crazy. Ali Wong (Always Be My Maybe) and Lena Waithe (Ready Player One) appear briefly as Officers Gore and Spector, the latter of which is incidentally the first openly LGBT character in Pixar history. It’s not groundbreaking representation; Spector mentions her girlfriend while discussing the difficulty of dating someone with kids. C’mon y’all, let’s take a cue from Merida and be a bit more brave.
There’s a continual temptation to rank films from Disney’s collective studios, and I haven’t yet settled on where ONWARD falls in my Pixar list. I’d notch it just below Coco, and that film is high up there for me. It’s certainly a stronger film than last year’s TOY STORY 4. I’d say it ranks just fine with the upper echelons of Pixar films, thanks in no small part to its emotional pull.
Kids will find ONWARD to be funny and interesting enough to be satisfying, while their parents might be reduced to puddles on the floor. Don’t be a dummy like me and come unprepared; stuff them pockets with appropriate levels of tissues before you leave home.
ONWARD cometh to theaters March 6, 2020.