Animation is a genre I’ve gone to bat for quite a lot in the past. Rather than seeing it as simple entertainment for kids, I’ve argued that it can be a vehicle for the most sensitive storytelling in film, when embracing a family-friendly tone, it can really portray complex issues in a way that will entertain children, as well as adults, and teach them about some of life’s most difficult struggles.
Without doubt the master of this art is Pixar, whose out put has covered death (Coco, Up), grief and loneliness (Toy Story 2, Wall-E) and how even a topic like discrimination (Zootropolis). They manage this with a carefully crafted blend of humour and emotive storytelling, managing to wring tears from adult and child minds alike; and as such, I always look forward to Pixar’s creative output.
That being said, I must confess to feeling a little short-changed upon seeing trailers for Onward, as it looked like a more generic setting, far removed from Pixar’s boundary-pushing worlds and concepts, a generic magical fantasy setting feels very cheap by their standards. But, it is worth remembering that I didn’t expect much of Coco either, and that turned me into a blubbering mess by the end.
So, we jump into a world of fantasy, but straight away there’s a different feel to this fantasy landscape. Rather than straight-up fantasy setting, the world in which this story exists is one that also resembles our own, a situation where technology overtook magic as the easiest way, and thus does this setting have real-world mod cons such as flying, cars and high schools.
Our protagonists are a pair of Elf brothers; Ian and Barley Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pine, respectively) one is shy and nerdy, the other brash and outgoing, the typical ‘brothers with opposite personalities’ setup. There is a tragic side to their tale however, as the boys lost their father when they were young, and on Ian’s 16th birthday, they discover that he was a wizard, leaving his staff behind, this then prompts a quest to find a magical macguffin, and so on and so forth.
One thing I love about Pixar’s storytelling is how they subtly set things up that you couldn’t possibly foresee. A character will mention something small to do with an object, and chances are good that that revelation will prove crucial later down the line. It allows the writers to flex their creativity within a setting we may already be familiar with, allowing them to push at the boundaries of what was expected. It is very hard to describe this without spoiling moments from the film, but I’m sure you know what I’m talking about, they’ve done it multiple times before.
Their experience in crafting a narrative is obvious from this film, even if the formula is starting to become noticeable, but a formula is not a bad thing inherently, it’s what you do with it subsequently that matters, the characters involved and the changes of pace, and Pixar have been nailing these kind of things for nearly 30 years. Their formula works, for sure, they wouldn’t have been the favourite of a generation if it didn’t, but as I say, it is starting to become more noticeable than ever now.
They still remain head and shoulders above most films aimed at a family audience, they seem to be the only studio that actually respects younger audiences, trusting them with more complex stories than their contemporaries, which makes even their worst film seem like a diamond in comparison, and Onward isn’t bad, in fact it’s great fun, and very effective in its storytelling, but the impossibly high bar they keep setting themselves is getting harder and harder to beat, and it’s starting to show.
I said earlier in this review that this seems like Pixar’s most ‘generic’ setting, ironic given it’s a land of fantasy, but they do enough with it to make it stand out, mixing the elements we recognise from epic fantasy with the mundane, the more they push that concept the more creative the film seems, but it doesn’t stand up with some of their more recent concepts. It feels a bit like a grab-bag containing elements from former concepts that work, but as always, when it’s embracing the things that make it unique is when it shines. When it seems like it’s using its more unique ideas is when it seems to achieve the magical feel it sets out for, best exemplified by the final third of the film.
It has a lot of really great ideas, some of which it uses to their full effect, and others are good ideas left over from previous films that have worked before, and there’s even a few moments that fall a bit flat, which is rare for Pixar.
The voice acting is a highlight, we know that Pratt and Holland have chemistry from their shared screen-time in the MCU, and they both work really hard to make their characters stand out,. and their goals and aspirations clear. Holland especially is excellent at this, conveying the same emotion he’s managed at times as Spider-Man through his voice alone, he really is a tremendous talent.
The animation is flawless, as can be expected. Each character has their own unique look and feel to make them distinguishable from each other, and there’s a nice contrast of bright settings and darker ones to keep the kids entertained with, as well as an accessible story they’ll be able to follow on the base level with extra layers for those more seasoned viewers, the usual, really.
But therein lies the problem, this is probable the film that feels the most ‘run-of-the-mill’ for the venerated studio (except perhaps for the Cars franchise, but I’m choosing to ignore them, so shh) it has its bright spots, its laughs, and its more downbeat moments, but it feels more like a ‘Greatest Hits’ release than a standalone album, if you get my drift.
I wouldn’t like you to go away from this thinking that I didn’t enjoy Onward, because I did, but compared to what’s come before it, it has a lot to live up to, and it just falls short. Still a class apart from many ‘child-friendly’ films, and depending on your own emotional standing towards these films it might even draw a tear, but it does it in a way that they’ve used before, and I can’t help but compare it to films that have done the same things, but marginally better. There’s enough to recommend here, but it’s not their best, is what I’m trying to say. Worth a look for certain, but I doubt it’ll be one you’ll revisit time and time again.