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Film Review: The Delightfully Odd World-Building of “Onward” Dazzles More Than It Doesn’t

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 5th, 2020

Film poster: “Onward”

Onward (Dan Scanlon, 2020) 3 out of 4 stars.

Ian Lightfoot is a fairly typical, if awkward, teenage boy, with the usual growing pains of angst and maladjustment. He may not yet have any real friends, but he does have a loving older brother, Barley. Unfortunately, Barley is a pretty goofy guy – a complete dork, actually, obsessed with fantasy role-playing games – whose good intentions towards his younger sibling are more embarrassing than helpful. They both live with their mother, Dad having died years ago. It’s a good home, but as Ian prepares to celebrate his 16thbirthday, he feels the lack of a father with especial poignancy; he’d love nothing more than to spend just one more minute with him. And so begins Onward, a quest adventure in which the brothers go in search of the missing half of their parental unit. I mean that literally, as you will soon see, for there is sorcery afoot. Did I mention they are elves?

Indeed, the most delightful aspect of this new animated treat from the fertile minds at Pixar is the world-building. For though the Lightfoots inhabit what looks like an ordinary suburban landscape (or hellscape, depending on your point of view), they are the descendants of creatures who once performed feats of wizardry, as are their friends and neighbors. Everyone around them, including centaurs, pixies, and one very volatile manticore, were, at one time, inhabitants of an enchanted realm. In an amusing prologue, director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) walks us through how scientific progress like the mastery of electricity led to a rapid decline in the use of magic. Why learn to cast spells when you can just flick an on-switch? And so here we are, in a place like any other, with the memory of greatness but a distant dream.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tom Holland in ONWARD ©Pixar Animation Studios

Or is it? It seems like Dad may have left behind one last trace of the glorious past, a written incantation that, if spoken properly, will bring him back for one full day. Unfortunately, neither Ian nor Barley get the spell just right, and so what they end up with is their father’s legs and a beam of light where his torso and head should be. Panicked at the thought of never getting to see more than that, they set off an adventure – guided by Barley’s gaming knowledge (which may actually be more historical than we think) – to complete the half-done conjuration, with worried Mom hard on their heels. Will they succeed? Maybe, but the joy is in the journey, as along the way they encounter obstacles and opportunities alike that keep the comic mayhem briskly moving forward.

With the voices of Tom Holland (Spider-Man: Far from Home), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Downhill), Chris Pratt (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) and Octavia Spencer (Luce), among others, there is no shortage of talent beneath the animation, which is serviceable if not enthralling. In truth, the least charming part of the film is its visual design, a surprising fact for a Pixar movie. Kudos to the team for its wild flights of fancy in the scriptwriting, however, even if the look is not quite up to the screenplay or the performances. I’d rather that than the inverse, even as I marvel at the strangeness of the bland decor. Onward dazzles more than it doesn’t, with a strong message of love and family bonding that warms the soul and heart in ways both expected and satisfyingly surprising. Before we move on to the next adventure, let us therefore first savor this one.

Chris Pratt, Tom Holland and Octavia Spencer in ONWARD ©Pixar Animation Studios
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Associate Editor and film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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