ONWARD review by Mark Walters – Pixar’s latest blends inspired fantasy with brotherly love

ONWARD review by Mark Walters – Pixar’s latest blends inspired fantasy with brotherly love

The new Pixar movie ONWARD imagines a world filled with elves, fairies, trolls, centaurs, and other mythical creatures… only puts a human quality to it, and makes it easy to relate to for just about any moviegoer, even those who aren’t into fantasy characters. It starts by showing how many years ago, these various entities existed in a world filled with magic and wonderment, until they evolved, and replaced spells with technology and modern structures and clothing. The castles are gone, replaced with suburban homes, albeit houses that look like giant mushrooms. Things like carriages are replaced with cars. Wizards become scientists, centaurs become cops, dragons become dog-like pets, there are high schools with kids of many interesting varieties… it’s kind of like how ZOOTOPIA imagined a world filled with animals who act like humans, only here all the characters feel like they walked out of a Dungeons & Dragons game.

Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) is a young elf trying to live the high school life, though shy and somewhat scared to make friends. His mother Laurel tries to encourage him, while his brash older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) seems content to torment his sibling whenever he’s not immersed in roleplaying games. Yes, these are character straight out of roleplaying games… and they like playing roleplaying games – how’s that for “meta” storytelling? Ian is also haunted by the deceased father he never got to know, as he passed away when Ian was just a baby. As Ian comes up on his birthday, his mother decides to share something with both boys that their father left behind with the wish that they receive it when they’re both old enough. It’s a magical staff, a “phoenix gem” and a spell that if carried out properly should bring the man back to life for one day, giving the boys a chance to spend time with him. As “magic” is no longer practiced, they’re not sure this is even possible, but Ian seems to possess just a bit of it, and enacts the spell, which begins to manifest his pop from the feet up… only he fails halfway through, and now his dad is nothing but a waist, legs and feet. To finish the spell, they must obtain another powerful phoenix gem, which isn’t exactly easy to find. This leads the boys on a quest, so they hop into Barley’s van and hit the road hoping to carry out the mission before the day’s time runs out. Just two elf boys and half a man in tow – what could go wrong?

ONWARD is like a mixture of ZOOTOPIA, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, SHREK and a little WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S. It’s about as weird as it gets for a family film, unless you’re into roleplaying games, in which case it might feel like a movie made just for you. I was initially skeptical with ONWARD based on what I had seen, this felt like it could have easily been a surefire miss for Pixar, but the end result is surprisingly fun and at times quite touching. It’s a road trip movie with a strong message of brotherly love, and how sometimes the journey can be more important that the destination. Chris Pratt and Tom Holland have great voice chemistry here, really selling these mismatched brothers who clearly have a strong family bond, even if they’re opposites in many ways. Holland plays Ian as a timid boy who needs to grow up a bit, and Pratt plays Barley as the reckless brother who desperately needs some guidance and discipline. It’s a bit like TOMMY BOY or PLANES TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES within those character dynamics, and makes for a fun buddy pairing. Their characters are in fact so likable, it makes up for the sometimes messy beats of the film that could have been much worse had the main two not been executed as well as they were.

The characters are the true strength of ONWARD, as the basic story is rather familiar and at times by-the-numbers. Thankfully even the supporting personalities are all interesting and well depicted. Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is the caring mother, but isn’t afraid to jump into action when her boys are in trouble. Her current boyfriend “Colt Bronco” is a centaur (a half-man half-horse) voiced by Mel Rodriguez, and becomes an instant fan-favorite character thanks to his perfect vocal performance and visual gags that are really cute. There’s also a band of biker fairies that become hilarious foils for our lead duo, and lead to a outrageous chase scene that is a true highlight for the film. Another standout character is The Manticore, a winged demonic fire-breathing beast (voiced by Octavia Spencer) that is now managing a restaurant filled with entitled kids. She’s left behind her more frightening ways, but becomes a clever muse for the boys when they seek her out hoping to find the gem. Even Barley’s vintage van called “Guinevere” is a character in an of itself, emblazoned with a majestic painted unicorn on the side. I could see a terrific toy line coming out of this film, whether they planned for it or not.

The film is directed by Dan Scanlon, who proved he can handle several eclectic characters at once with MONSTERS UNIVERSITY, and he keeps the story moving at a brisk and engaging pace. Clocking in at an hour and 42 minutes, I found myself actually wishing there was more to this, though I respected how well Scanlon compartmentalized the story that was there. ONWARD is definitely one of Pixar’s weirder experiments, but somehow it all works quite well, and may just become a classic if it finds its audience. While there are certainly some emotional moments, it’s not as powerful as some of their other films, but the fun factor is really high to where that doesn’t matter. In a time where we think we’ve seen it all when it comes to family entertainment, ONWARD is an uniquely inspired and unexpected treat.

ONWARD opens March 6, 2020

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started Bigfanboy.com, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and Bigfanboy.com regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.