The beauty of Pixar films often stems from a crystal clear premise, the kind of singular idea that a film just laps out of – and that is then effortlessly surrounded by accessible yet deep themes. Toys come alive at night; monsters want to care rather than scare; a discarded robot is in search of love and a fish is just trying to find her father. Even when things get more conceptually strange, the core is still simple: superheroes want to fit in; an old man wants to feel alive again; a young chef dreams of being the culinary toast of Paris. With Onward, things aren’t so simple. The premise is more laboured and the themes flow less naturally, and not as coherently. There’s no one sentence pitch here as the world of the film and the emotional narrative could easily exist in separation. However, though there are more conceptual hurdles than you’re average Pixar, this is still a charming film full of real laughs and genuine emotion.
Onward is set in a fantasy world in which technology – starting with the lightbulb and ending up with contemporary gadgets – was invented because magic was hard and unreliable. This provides an inherent metaphor, the thing with magic is that it is, well, magic – always connoting something special, unique and important. The film plays nicely with this idea, presenting the magical world that forgot magic as a mirror for a coming-of-age story about accepting things that have been inside you all along. It is a clever little pairing, though it is not tied together as neatly as it could – existing in the periphery as opposed to part of the core text. The same is true of the recurring motif of the right way versus the easy way. The replacement of magic with tech represents loss of joy and the like, a nice metaphor to go alongside a story about a boy growing up and leaving behind childish things. Throughout the journey there are points where there is a choice between what is easy or what is adventurous – the path where the magic lies. And, again, though the film rarely connects the dots – presenting the ghost of an idea to the viewer rather than actually exploring it – the idea of a society that favours instant gratification over what truly matters (instant satisfaction over hard earned victories) is an engaging one.
The real focus of the film is not completely divorced from all of this but it is something else. Onward is about two young elves, one turning sixteen and the other between high-school and college, who live with a single mother and the memory of a long dead father. While parental death is often a cheap and distasteful trope in children’s cinema – and beyond this – Onward avoids a number of easy pitfalls. To be honest, with film where it is at the moment – vis-à-vis representation – a deceased dad is at least better than yet another dead or dying mum. Also, his death never feels like a mere plot device or a manipulation – he remains a central character (very literally later on) and his absence exists from the start (there is no cheap rug pull of giving us a dad before taking him away). Onward recognises that many tropes are not inherently bad, it is that they are poorly used or thrown in as spice; by making this loss central to the plot – and actually making the film about it – Onward gleans real emotion and substance from a narrative framing that sinks similar films.
This also works because the dad is not gone for long – meaning we have a subversion and not a re-tread. In one of many contrived, but entertaining, moments the kids find out dad left them a present for when they were both sixteen: a magic spell that will conjure him for a day and let them have a father again for this brief time. However, for the purposes of the film having conflict and a plot – and to make it so an adventure can happen – the spell does not work. Dad returns, but only as a set of legs, and the film becomes the quest to find a new gemstone to redo the spell so that some of the twenty-four hours can include dad’s top half as well as his bottom. This sounds a bit laboured, but it works in the moment – mostly because of the tone and the genre space it is knowingly playing in (and the references it makes). Following the plot here requires one to give into consistent coincidence and invented logic; however, this actually works well due to the fantasy setting and the overt links with adventure stories and table-top role playing adventures. Onward has the feel of a joyful, but spontaneously invented, narrative; it’s a tall tale being spun at a table with friends.
The film coasts on charm very nicely. It also is enabled by stunning animation. The film is absolutely gorgeous, full of moments designed to show off the impressive tech that Pixar have at their disposal. But, the aesthetic is also a joy. The world here is so well built and actually transcends the film itself. As alluded to earlier, the narrative and the world don’t seem intrinsically linked: the world is connected to the narrative, but any world could be, it is merely a fun backdrop to spice up a story about fathers and sons – as well as brotherly love. This narrative is successfully told, and has a lovely message, but one cannot help lightly wishing for a plot as imaginative – and fresh – as the world design. Every frame is bursting with amazing details and is overstuffed with imagination. You could spend the whole film scouring each image to find layered gags and just a lot of visual beauty. The film as a whole doesn’t tie as much together as it should, feeling endearingly loose and rough in places; the world the film is set in feels completely cohesive and is so well realised.
However, there is a traditionalism that keeps Onward down. There is also an annoying Chris Pratt who seems to be doing an unsatisfying Jack Black impersonation. The character is built well enough, and written well enough, that he is still likeable and worthwhile, even if the vocal performance is a weak point. Tom Holland as the younger brother is also merely serviceable. Though, this is perhaps due to the character feeling very familiar and not having the most fleshed out or interesting arc. Though the thoughts and feelings of our pair mature, they ultimately feel the same at the end as at the beginning, just with acceptance. This is nice but it doesn’t make for the most satisfying character story. It is also part of the aforementioned traditionalism. There’s the ghost of something new and bold here: a brave new world that naturally produces resonant themes about a loss of magic in society; a slide into enabled inaction and a nice spin on the coming-of-age genre. Sadly, the film does not capitalise on these points, letting them appear but not doing very much with them – instead focusing on a very well executed but very predictable narrative. This makes for an entertaining film, and the very funny writing only adds to this, but it is not a film with staying power or one that will particularly surprise or invigorate.