Review: Onward (2020)
Director: Dan Scanlon | 103 minutes | animation, comedy Original voice cast: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Mel Rodriguez, Kyle Bornheimer, Lena Waithe, Ali Wong, Gray Griffin, Tracey Ullman, Wilmer Valderrama, George Psarras, John Ratzenberger
An endearing little robot, a rat with a nose for haute cuisine, talking toys and life-giving human emotions – Pixar’s creative minds know every time to come up with the most original characters, who let them play the lead in adventures that touch us right in the heart. With that Pixar sets the bar high, not only for competing studios but certainly also for itself. In order to give themselves more time to come up with a new, brilliant “original”, the animation superpower has been releasing many follow-up films in recent years (which by the way are often just as brilliant as the original films). In Pixars anniversary year 2020 – in which it is 25 years ago that the studio debuted with ‘Toy Story’ (1995) – the enthusiast is treated with not one but even two brand new films: ‘Onward’ by Dan Scanlon and ‘Soul’ by Pete Docter . The latter is still waiting in the Netherlands until June, but “Onward” is now running in the halls. It is a very personal film for director Scanlon. “When I was a year old and my brother three, our father died. So we grew up without knowing him, except for photos and the stories our mother told us. We have always been curious about who he was and if we look like him. And that has precisely become the basis for the film “Onward”: the search for discovering who you will become as you get older and how this relates to your family. “
The world in which “Onward” takes place is an age-old magical universe inhabited by creatures from fairy tales, fables, and sagas. But the magic has now been overwhelmed by technology, laziness, and the 24-hour economy, with the result that neglected unicorns emptied the trash cans, fairies worshiped and now move on to Harley Davidsons and the mythological Manticore (half lion, half scorpion, with wings) now operates a pancake house. The young elf Ian is celebrating his sixteenth birthday but is too insecure to invite his classmates. Fortunately, the gift that his mother Laurel has for him and his brother Barley makes a lot of good. With this magical staff with a rare phoenix stone and the right spell – which fantasy freak Barley always has ready – they can conjure up their deceased father for 24 hours. Because they both hardly knew him, and they have a lot to discuss with him, the boys are eager. But during the execution, unfortunately, something is not quite right: their father appears only halfway (the bottom one, so talking to him is not there) and the precious phoenix stone is destroyed during the magic process. Barley knows where they can still find such a stone, but for that they have to make an adventurous trip to the mountains. In addition, they naturally encounter considerable opposition along the way. Their mother meanwhile worries about her boys and decides to go after them. She is accompanied by the Manticore, who seems to have regained her old spirit.
As we are used to from Pixar, “Onward” is full of ingenious visual jokes; nothing we get in the picture just passes by. So yes, that bag of chips that Barley takes out of a vending machine turns out to be of great importance later on, just like that orange light that he takes as a souvenir and the wall painting that adorns Ian’s high school. The meeting with the fairies at the gas station did not just end in the film. What Pixar’s animation geniuses are also known for, is the fact that they know how to incorporate sincere emotions into their animation films. The characters never experience their adventures without reason; they experience personal growth, learn to deal with certain feelings and discover who they are and how they can accept themselves. Important life lessons, for children but certainly also for adults. Family ties and friendships are often central in these life lessons, also in “Onward”. Of course there is the lack of the father, but their joint quest for that missing link in their lives brings Ian and Barley closer together. Not so much father love, but brotherly love in particular is celebrated here. Don’t be surprised if you have to tear away a tear from the emotional peak.
But no matter how well ‘Onward’ works – we haven’t even mentioned the excellent voice cast yet – the film is coming in less quickly than, for example, ‘Wall-E’ (2008), ‘Up’ (2009) and the complete ‘Toy Story’ series. Perhaps that is because the world of “Onward” is populated by fantasy creatures farther away from us, despite the fact that they have been given quite a few human traits. Or would it be that Dan Scanlon is a less gifted director than, say, Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter? Despite the lesser impact, “Onward” with its fun visual finds, catchy adventure and warm message is still more than worth it. Pixar has only set the bar so high that the studio itself sometimes breaks down.
See all photos >>