REVIEW: Onward Is Full Of Heart

pixar's onward review

Reports have said that Onward is on track for one of Pixar’s lowest openings ever, which may be in due in part to some confused marketing. Not that the trailers for the film have been bad, because you can’t necessarily go wrong by highlighting Chris Pratt and Tom Holland’s chemistry. But it does seem as if the strategy has been to emphasize the fun quest over the family feels, when the latter is really what makes the film hit home.

Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of laughs to be had from beginning back a pair of legs instead of a whole dad. And there’s certainly a lot of enjoyment to mine from the new and exciting creatures, especially the trash unicorns who deserve a whole spinoff to themselves and the pet dragon who ousts dogs as man’s best friend. But Onward doesn’t spend enough time building the relationship between the characters and their world enough to make the fantasy elements stand out as more than merchandising material.

onward barley ian

Even Barley’s (Pratt) Quests of Yore facts and magic rules for Ian (Holland) to follow don’t have much specificity to them to quality Onward as any more of a fantasy than Coco with its Dia de los Muertos magic or even Finding Nemo with literal talking fish. Instead, the thing that really makes this film sing is the heartfelt connection the brothers feel to their father – and to each other.

Once again, Pixar has successfully explored the pain of losing a loved one before (most notably in Up) as well as the magical bonds of family (most powerfully in Coco). But an in-depth exploration of siblings hasn’t cropped up as often in their repertoire, and it’s probably never been as nuanced as it is with the Lightfoot household. What stands out, aside from the sparkling chemistry between Pratt and Holland that speaks to their offscreen relationship as well, is the support laced within their scenes.

Siblings are often shown in the midst of petty squabbling and jealousy, which is valid in and of itself. But they’re rarely shown as purely and unambiguously protective of each other with no ulterior motives as Onward shows. The very fact that Barley is obsessed with magic yet Ian is the one with the knack for it would be enough to create a rivalry in any other film. But here, it’s the beginning of a very special adventure that the boys embark on with sincere intentions.

onward laurel

Sincerity is the name of the game throughout Onward, and it’s reflected in the other dynamics of the film. Not that there are many, because unfortunately one thing the film runs low on is plot. But Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is shown to be a hardworking and kind-hearted mother who looks after her sons with care, and even her boyfriend Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez) proves to be a dad-in-training just trying his best. It’s refreshing not to have a real villain, or any sneaky double-dealings among its protagonists, even if that doesn’t help some of the lagging spots.

The Manticore (Octavia Spencer) is another standout in the film, and her quest to help Laurel at times could make for its own movie. If anything, it’s to the film’s detriment that they didn’t take the time to deepen her narrative about recapturing magic in order to tie her more closely to Barley and Ian. After all, it’s a huge deal that magic fell by the wayside in society before Ian found his dad’s letter. But Onward almost treats it as an everyday occurrence, mostly because it’s more focused on the emotional aspects of the Lightfoot boys reuniting with their father.

Onward has no shortage of sweetness in its ingredients, but it could do with a little more spice to elevate it above the rest of Pixar’s excellent fare. It’s still a good time at the movies, though, and a great jumping off point for families to talk about love and loss.

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