In all it’s 25 years of making feature films, the one thing that Pixar has definitely figured out is it’s formula. Through all their films, they seem to like returning to the same mode of story, which is taking their characters on a journey. Whether it’s Woody venturing outside Andy’s room in Toy Story (1995), or Flik levaing the ant colony in A Bug’s Life (1998), or Wall-E leaving Earth for the cosmos, or Carl Fredrickson flying his house all the way to South America in Up (2009), or Miguel accidentally finding himself in the Land of the Dead in Coco (2017). The studio loves to take their characters out of their comfort zones and bring them into a strange new world. And why change a formula that has worked so well for them. If anything, their movies suffer when they stray too far from the formula (Cars 2‘s pointless spy movie diversion for example). It’s a formula that also works well with the other thing that defines most Pixar films, which is their ability to re-imagine the world through a different perspective. This includes the microscopic world of insects in A Bug’s Life, or the one inhabited by monsters in Monsters Inc. (2001), or one inhabited entirely by sentient vehicles in Cars (2006), or one entirely within the mind of a twelve year old girl in Inside Out (2015). Because of this, we certainly know a Pixar movie when we see one, and that allows the filmmakers who work at the studio to craft a whole variety of stories that fit well into that template. While most other animation studios attempt to pick up that Pixar formula and run with it, they can never actually match it. Pixar has refined their style over a quarter of a century now, and it really only works well because of the unique creative atmosphere that they have managed to cultivate at their Emeryville campus. And that creative spark continues into this new decade, with the release of their 22nd feature; Onward.
Onward on the surface appears to be the prototypical Pixar film; carrying over all the same features that I mentioned above. It’s a film that takes place in a world parallel to our own, but with a twist; in this case, a world of fantasy set in suburbia. It’s also a film that takes it’s characters on a journey, which fittingly matches a society that has it’s origins in swords and sorcery. In many ways, it’s almost too prototypical, like a parody of a Pixar movie that you would expect from another studio. But, what makes the difference is not the world that Pixar sets it’s story in, but what’s at the center of the story itself. And the origins of this story comes from a surprisingly personal place. Director Dan Scanlon, who previously helmed Monsters University (2013), based the story of Onward on something that actually happened in his own life. In the movie, the two main characters have lived without their father for most of their life, with the younger brother having been born after his father’s passing. This parallel’s the real life upbringing of Scanlon, who never met his own father either. The scenario of the movie comes from a discovery he made many years later while searching through his father’s old things, and in there he found a tape recording his father had made many years ago. Through this, he was able to hear his father’s voice for the first time, which had a profound effect on him. Scanlon’s example is one of those things that really sets Pixar apart, considering how much personal emotion each of the filmmakers put into their own work. The only question left is, how does Onward stack up within the extremely high standards of the Pixar canon, and does the personal story underneath manage to give studio’s formula that extra bit of new magic as well.
The story takes place in fantasy world where sorcery and enchantment reigned. Creatures such as elves, centaurs, trolls and unicorns all coexisted and thrived thanks to the existence of magic in the world. But since magic was difficult to master, the creatures sought out easier ways to earn a living, so they turned to modern conveniences like light bulbs, cars, and airplanes. Eventually, magic faded from the world, all but forgotten in a modern, fast-paced society. Living in this modern world is the elven Lightfoot family. Raised by their single mom Laurel (Julia Loius-Dreyfus), brothers Barley (Chris Pratt) and Ian (Tom Holland) navigate through the struggles of growing up into men, especially under the shadow of their beloved and long departed father. Barley is a man child, impulsive and very much into fantasy role playing games. Ian is a shy introvert who wants to be just like the Dad he never knew, but doesn’t quite know how to start. On Ian’s 16th Birthday, he receives a surprise gift from their mom, which turns out to be a wizard staff left by his dad. In addition, he gave Ian a visitation spell which can bring him back to life for one whole day. With encouragement from Barley, Ian soon learns that the wizard staff responds to his commands, and he begins the visitation spell, only to have it short circuit halfway. Right after, Ian and Barley find that their Dad has returned, but only from the feet to the waistline. With this unfortunate result, the two brothers must search for another Phoenix Stone in order to complete the spell before the day runs out and their Dad disappears completely. Taking advantage of Barley’s knowledge of ancient mystical lore, they set out to follow an ancient trail to find the lost stone, with their father’s legs in tow. This includes seeking out the help of the mighty warrior, the Manticore (Octavia Spencer) who now manages a family restaurant. All the while, Laurel tries to find her boys before they get into trouble, aided by her centaur police officer boyfriend, Officer Colt (Mel Rodriquez). With time against them, can the Lightfoot brothers escape the perils of this quest, both old and new.
With a fantasy world setting as it’s backdrop, you would think that this movie was set up for Pixar to just go all out and create the most imaginative world they’ve ever made in one of their movies. Surprisingly, that’s not what they did at all. While it does take advantage of it’s re-imagined world, Onward is actually one of the more grounded Pixar movies that I’ve seen in quite a while. Far more focus was put onto the story and the characters than on filling out this fantasy world that they inhabit, which actually comes across as surprisingly small. But, you know what, it actually works to the movie’s benefit. Whereas most Pixar wannabe movies put too much focus on the world-building of their films, Pixar instead puts the focus exactly where it needs to be, which is on the characters and their story. As a result, Onward is a shining example of the Pixar formula working to a “T”. The characters first and foremost must be relatable and worthy of attention, and that would’ve been impossible if the eye was too often drawn into the background details of this world, which don’t get me wrong, are still impressively realized. I get the feeling that the movie will probably benefit from repeat viewings, because I’m sure that people will want to see this multiple times in order to see all the details that they missed before. All the while, Ian and Barley’s story takes the journey formula that Pixar has mastered and builds it towards a satisfying, and surprisingly heartwarming finale. It’s easy to see the heart that Dan Scanlon brought to the movie, basing so much of it off of his own experience (minus the magical quest part). It’s one of those stories that is not about the ultimate destination, but about the internal changes that the characters go through that make the movie resonate so well. It also doesn’t take the easy route either, with characters sometimes revealing deep rooted flaws that often manifest in ways that they might not have expected.
The one downside to Onward‘s more grounded story is that it also kind of minimizes the ultimate impact as well. Stakes remain very low in this movie. The Lightfoot brothers go off on a quest, but never really leave their city limits that far behind, making their world remain relatively small. There is no dark presence there to get in their way, no existential threat. It’s just two boys on a treasure hunt. And while the story that we get does have a lot of heart and is incredibly entertaining throughout, I also feel that this kind of character journey played out much more effectively in other Pixar films. I didn’t really feel the emotional impact here as strongly as I did in say Coco, which had a real profound life and death struggle at it’s center. By the end of that movie, Pixar had built up the stakes of the movie so much, that the simple act of a boy singing to his ailing great grandmother took on this profound importance. I didn’t feel that same impact with Onward, and I don’t know quite why. I believe that director Scanlon put as much heart into his underlying story as the filmmakers of Coco did; perhaps even more so. Maybe it’s the fact that there was less of a lasting effect that the final denouement moment than what Coco had. A similar effect happens with the movie Up, which even though it’s grounded in a realistic world like ours, it’s concluding chapter feels far more impactful, mainly because the stakes became higher by the end. It may be that it’s not where the story ultimately concludes that didn’t resonate enough, but rather that the character’s journey didn’t leave as much of an impact. Ian and Barley are closely tied as brothers in the beginning of the movie, and remain so to the very end, changing very little in their relationship. Their journey is not a terrible one by any means, but it’s also one that may not have taken the full arc that it probably could have.
While the plot does have it’s shortcomings, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty more to love about this movie. Chief among them is the voice cast, which is a top notch one even by Pixar standards. Taking full advantage of their connection to Marvel through the big tent Disney connection they have, Pixar managed to bring in some big names to play the Lightfoot brothers, namely the two Peters of Marvel (Quill and Parker respectively, otherwise known as Star Lord and Spider-Man). Chris Pratt in particular is especially well cast as the free-spirited, roleplay-obsessed Barley. Between this and his work in the Lego Movies, Pratt has proven to be remarkably adept at voice acting, bringing an incredible amount of personality to each character he plays. I especially love how well he balances the more goofball aspects of the character with the deeper, more sincere moments he has later on in the film. At the same time, he finds a perfect match with Tom Holland playing the role of Ian. Holland has pretty much become the master of awkward teenager roles in a way we haven’t seen since the days of Michael J. Fox in his prime, and he brings an incredible amount of heart to the character of Ian. I wonder if he and Chris Pratt recorded some of their scenes together, because their chemistry comes across so strongly that you almost feel like their riffing off one another in real time. At the same time, Julia Louis-Dreyfus brings an extra amount of heart to the movie as Laurel, making it her second major role in a Pixar flick after giving voice to Princess Atta in A Bug’s Life twenty years ago. Octavia Spencer also does a great job voicing the Manticore, perfectly imagining an overburdened creature who has long abandoned her wilder instincts. The strengths of these characters no doubt benefited from a cast who worked so well together, especially with the two brothers at the center. And much of the charm in the movie comes from the perfect casting that extends pretty much across the board throughout the movie.
While the world that’s been imagined for the film does come across as pretty scaled down for the most part, it is still beautifully realized. Even in some of their lesser movies, Pixar still keeps the bar set high with regards to their visual aesthetic. The movie looks just as beautiful on the big screen as say Toy Story 4 (2019) or Incredibles 2 (2018). I especially like how it maintains this purplish hue throughout, which reinforces the sort of neon based color palette of a fantasy world that we probably most associate with the 1980’s, which was a decade where fantasy films flourished. At the same time, like most Pixar movies, it’s the background details that will likely catch people’s eye while watching the movie, especially with all the Easter eggs and sight gags that are littered throughout. A lot of it is subtle, and does disappear into the background, much in the same way you forget about the setting in an episode of The Flintstones, but it’s still effectively realized. I especially like how much character is brought into all of these fantasy elements as well. The beat up van that Barley drives, affectionately named Guinevere, is a perfect example of the subtle ways that the filmmakers imagined this contemporary style fantasy world. On the outside, Guinevere has the appearance of a typical 80’s era van, complete with an airbrushed piece of art on it’s side, but inside it’s been made to look like a miniature viking hall, complete with wooden siding on the walls, and makeshift shields and tapestries hung throughout, like a roleplay obsessed person would add to their personal space. Guinevere almost becomes a character itself, and whose sendoff in the movie is one of the absolute funniest moments. It’s another example of the incredible animation that has always been the thing that has set Pixar apart, and continues to remain strong as shown in the beautiful work displayed in Onward.
It’s hard to make a fair assessment of where Onward places within the entire Pixar canon. If it were made by a different studio, Onward would be a revelation and a new gold standard for quality. But because this is Pixar we are talking about, a studio that has consistently performed at an incredibly high standard for 25 solid years, Onward has to face a higher bit of scrutiny. And as a result, it does suffer a bit in comparison, especially when it comes to how effectively it plays out the tried and true Pixar formula. While still incredibly fun and engaging, I did feel that it lacked that little bit of extra pathos that could send it into all-time territory for the studio. It’s character journey just feels a bit more minor in the long run compared to similar plots found in Coco and Up. Also the grounded aspect of it’s story does feel like it’s shackling the world building, which could have gone a little bit farther. Even the non-Pixar animation classic from parent company Disney, the amazing Zootopia (2016), managed to fully flesh out it’s world and maintain a compelling narrative in the same amount of time that Onward had. Even still, the movie is delightful romp through a beautifully realized world, even if that world is a bit smaller than you might expect. It particularly gives us some fantastic characters worth rooting for, with a voice cast that is perfectly matched together, and their story is engaging enough to follow, with even some surprising twists and turns by the end. Honestly, you’ll probably get a lot out of this movie just hearing Chris Pratt and Tom Holland working off each other, making you wish that this kind of pair may one day happen again (get on that Spider-Man/ Guardians crossover now Marvel). In many ways, I’d put Onward somewhere in the center of Marvel’s incredible body of work, slightly leaning towards the upper half. And considering how very few Pixar movies are actually considered bad, that’s saying something very positive about Onward. It’s not going to become the newest high point of Pixar’s body of work, but it’s still a great representation of the fact that their formula is still going strong. With a passionate enough story, incredibly likable characters, and an imaginative world, this is one movie that will no doubt leave it’s viewers enchanted.