Updated: Mar 9, 2021
Tell me something: have you even been sick to death of the constant remakes and sequels that Disney made over the past couple of years alone? Every time I saw one of those be the subject of entertainment gossip, it left me feeling as if Disney needs some new creative routes to pursue in order to keep itself artistically afloat in terms of originality. That's not to say they were done poorly, though. Most of the sequels were very nicely done, but the remakes were mostly just one dud after another, especially last year's Lion King.
Well, finally, Disney, as well as Pixar, started to breathe new life into its storytelling realms with Onward. And I can safely say, this one really did not disappoint.
It's about a young elf named Ian Lightfoot, who was determined to be at his best - and, to an extent, at his manliest - in life or in high school on his 16th birthday. Yet, while he had that on his mind due to his social awkwardness, he also was fretful about not having known his father very well, who passed away when he was very young. Not to mention, he struggled to keep his social image alive whenever he was overshadowed by the wild and reckless antics of his older brother, Barley Lightfoot.
Later that same day, his mother, Laurel, showed both of them what their father wanted to give to them once they became at least 16 years old: an ancient wizard's staff. With the wizard's staff, Ian and Barley were to use a spell that their father attached with it that would've granted them the opportunity to bring his father back to life for 24 hours. After they both tried and failed several times, Ian managed to successfully and accidentally operate the spell and the staff, and because of that, it resulted in him bringing their father back to life...or at least, the bottom half of their father. Determined to resume the spell and bring the rest of their father back to life, Ian and Barley decided to go on a quest, in a manner of speaking, to find a rare gem called the Pheonix Gem. With it, it would've allowed them to resume the spell and finally get acquainted with their father before their 24 hours with him were up.
Now, the last time I talked about Pixar, I gushed over Ratatouille, and that I thought it was not only one of the best films ever made, but also of my favorites in general. But I also came to acknowledge that Pixar has had its share of lesser efforts over the past decade. But even then, they weren't exactly the worst; outside of one dud (Cars 2), they were all just middle of the road, at worst. And, frankly, this movie, while not a classic like Ratatouille or Wall-E, was a cut above the rest compared to those efforts.
For starters, the characters. I found them to be very nicely established, even if some were more established than others.
Ian, the shy younger brother, voiced by Tom Holland, was socially awkward, struggled to keep his head held high when dealing with embarrassing moments, and often times felt like he was struggling under the shadow of Barley. His desire to see his father was pretty much understandable since he bareley even knew him. What was especially nice to see was that over the course of the movie, Ian started to establish a budding sense of self-confidence that helped him overcome his social issues and prove his worth.
Barley, the older brother, voiced by Chris Pratt, was a fun, charming character, thanks to his energy, his boastfulness, and his commitment to the old-fashioned ways. Sometimes, he can be a bit of a loose cannon, as was plainly hinted at with him driving around in his stylized van, which he nicknamed "Guinevere", all the time. I also found him hilarious every time he requested certain magical spells or taught Ian how to master them with a board game, Quest of Yore. I'll talk more about that soon.
Laurel, voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, was a sweet, gentle mother, if not a complex character, and she felt very tender whenever she expressed how much she missed her husband, just like Ian and Barley did. What made her more interesting and funny to watch over time, besides her voice acting, was when she, a normally laid-back, grounded character, had to adjust to the magical elements cropping up around her as Ian and Barley continued with their quest.
Officer Colt Bronco, the police centaur, voiced by Mel Rodriguez, felt a bit standard, and would have not been very interesting had it not been for his sense of humor and the fact that he went out with Laurel for quite some time. Even though he never got into quarrels with the boys outside of pursuing them on their adventure once they went further into dangerous territory, he was pretty interesting to watch when the boys felt as if they could never have expected him to replace their father.
Corey, voiced to perfection by Octavia Spencer, was a manticore who, like Barley, knew a lot about the ancient magical elements of their world. Ian and Barley knew her as being one of the fiercest, bravest warriors in history, but when they met her, she simply became a waitress. At the stage she was in throughout the movie, she was shown as being strong and loyal, yet uncertain of her commitments. And whenever she was torn over which lifestyle to stick to, not to mention the ways she expressed them whenever she was around them or mostly Laurel, they made her stand out as being unnerving, awesome, and hilarious at the same time.
Something else I thought was interesting was that, while I refrained from reading too much into the movie until I saw it in theaters, I caught news reports saying that Onward was one of the first animated features from either Disney or Pixar to include an LGBTQ character. The character in question was a cyclopean policewoman who pulled Ian and Barley over when they were driving too fast. I really liked just how natural she felt in this movie; she acted like a regular policewoman doing her job, and her mannerisms concerning her sexuality - in this case, she mentioned having a girlfriend - were short and sweet. This was especially neat because the last time Disney included gay characters in their films, they did that with LeFou in the live-action Beauty and the Beast, and frankly...I found his gayness to be too over-the-top and blatant. This, on the other hand, was more of an Andi Mack-esque portrayal, and I applaud Onward for taking that step in endorsing mainstream equality.
The story may not be the strongest, but it still provided enough twists to provide a fun, engaging quest fit for Ian and Barley. What started off as just a birthday discovery story gradually took off and became an exciting adventure flick about finding rare mythical components in an otherwise modernized fantasy world. When the movie was over, it left me wondering what kind of fantasy-esque quests – with all the obstacles to overcome and the distance to cover in order to find something rare and coveted – are possible in today’s world.
Its themes of brotherhood shone brightly throughout Onward, and I especially liked how it thought outside the box with it while still maintaining its focus on where it should be. We, as the viewers, would've known that somehow or other, the brothers, different as they may have been, would've come to grips with and accepted each other for who they were, warts and all. However, it's the father-son relationships that started to take Barley’s advice in inventing its own paths. What happened was, Ian wanted so badly to meet his father, that he wrote down a list of things he could have done with his father in the 24 hours they would’ve had with him. And, despite Ian and Barley resurrecting only the bottom half of his body, and while this did result in plenty of humorous pratfalls, the moments of connection they did feel with it still spoke volumes, and you can tell that the father figure sensed what each one of his sons were going through.
And then, as far as inventing its own paths were concerned, there were two things that got that ball rolling.
One, when Ian and Barley had a falling-out over Barley’s antics after his sense of direction led them to the high school where Ian went, Ian walked off with his father’s lower body and started to cross off the activities he didn’t do with his father. But then, when he thought about it more and more, he had an epiphany: all the things he wanted to do with his father, he already did all of that, except with Barley instead.
Two, Barley admitted to Ian during their adventure together that he remembered their father more than Ian did, but only because of a horrifying incident concerning them both. When their father got sick and close to dying, Barley came to check up on him so he could've said good-bye, and when he saw him supported by all the tubes that were needed to keep him alive, Barley panicked and fled before he shared his goodbyes with him. As a result, this gave him a reason to never let fear get the best of him. This would eventually have played an even bigger role by the time they did find the Phoenix Gem and finally resurrect the rest of their father. Even though Ian really wanted to see his father, which he did, this was really Barley’s chance to get acquainted with his father, and also his chance of reconciliation with him. The way the movie played around with both family dynamics was very well-woven and very effective.
But with that heavy load out of the way, let’s get to my favorite part of the movie, and that is the super creative world building.
In a world full of mythical creatures, ranging from centaurs to mermaids to wizards and so on, they used to master the art of magic, and they used it to enchance their lives more. But when a scientific discovery was accomplished, this jumpstarted a chain reaction where the rest of the creatures created scientific expeditions of their own, and over time, the creatures adjusted themselves to the technological advancements of the modern world, similarly to how he, as humans, adjusted to ours. So in this world, magic wasn't nonexistent, but rather, a dying art.
This kind of world-building dynamic inspires so many possibilities that deserve to be explored. For one, we see a mermaid lounging around in a plastic pool gazing at her iPhone. For another, watching Officer Colt Bronco ride off into action was humorous but also awesome to watch. Ian, while in school, had to put up with a large ogre who was occupying his own desk space, as well as a good portion of Ian's desk space. Along the way, Ian and Barley ran into a biker gang, who turned out to be pixies who haven't used their wings in a while. Even Corley, the manticore, was a perfect example of how different the modern world has become compared to the grand, epic world in which she was a fearless warrior.
And of course, let's not forget Quests of Yore, Barley's board game. Barley tried to convince his mother as well as Ian that the spells in the game were real, and not just some magical embellishments made up for the game. Then, as he and Ian went along with their quest, the spells Ian taught Barley, right down to the steps needed to be taken, all worked. In other words, a board game easily inspired by Dungeons and Dragons that turned out to be the modern equvilant of the classic Book of Spells? That contradiction is just a book of hilarious jokes waiting to happen.
Were there anything about this movie that didn't work? Well, I wouldn't go that far, but the story was a little weak, some of the characters could've been fleshed out more, and there was also a wizard who was a master in magic - I forget his name - but whether he appeared in a flashback or in an engraving, take a close look at him and see for yourself.
Doesn't that wizard look a little too much like Gandalf to you? Couldn't he have been established with just a little more defining features to separate him from the other wizards who came before him? Not just Gandalf, but others like Merlin or Dumbledore? I just wish that the wizard was designed with a little more originality to him. And yet, as I thought about it, I also acknowledged that it would've been tricky to come up with more original features for this wizard, so I can sort of understand.
But what does that matter? Everything about Onward that worked, it worked very nicely. Is it perfect? No. Does it stand on the shoulders of Pixar's other masterpieces? Absolutely not. But I ought to congratulate Onward for being a cinematic breath of fresh air after two years of being continually fed sequels and remakes from Disney. And of course, the characters, the relationships, and the world-building were just the icing on the cake.
Thou darest go on a wild, intriguing quest through inventive realms? Then march onward to Onward!
My Rating: B+
I believe you can break a movie down into three major categories: an original movie, a sequel, and a remake/reboot/reimagining. All three of them should be acknowledged for what they're capable of, and not one of them should be dismissed over the other. That is to say, as long as they all can be created with the utmost care and dedication that a movie deserves. But if I had to pick just one of these, it's the original movies that clearly deserve a sporting chance.
As of this writing, I caught the news report that after less than a month in theaters, it would be hitting the digital platform and even Disney+ early in response to the coronavirus outbreak. It is a pleasant surprise, but it also feels so shockingly early, that it sort of diminishes the fun of seeing it in theaters. Personally, I hope this doesn't become a common practice after the coronavirus hysteria wanes out. The last thing I want to see is for cinematic moviegoing to becoming a dying art, too.