For Onward, the title moves like an impetuous for action: it’s time for Pixar’s return to original ideas, as a central component of the brand. After Incredibles 2 (2018) and Toy Story 4 (2019), high-quality but ultimately unasked for sequels, the new concepts of Onward and Soul are about recentering. It’s about making personal stories again and not just in the context of big movie ideas. Director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University, 2013) returns with a head full of confidence and good intentions. Scanlon lost his father very young. His family shared recordings of his father with him, which have produced clear and direct inspiration for his work in Onward, in which two brothers reanimate their father as a pair of trousers, and set out on an epic RPG-Gamer quest to preserve one final day with their long lost dad.
Onward is a touching and heartfelt journey. Anyone who has lost family will find some love in it. It supports everyone’s own path of self-discovery. The universal feeling of brotherly love is the heartbeat thumping a steady rhythm for the story. It is as attuned for emotional resonance outcomes as any of Pixar’s work. While the emotional story works, it feels like there needs to be another tangible motivator, a conflict beyond finding their dad’s upper-half, as his bottom-half journeys with them. What we have is a nice little story about two brothers and their developing camaraderie, yet the conflicts that might prevent their arrival at an agreeable conclusion feel trivial and invented for the excuse of plot progression until they become oh so very big, just at the end.
One way Onward moves the plot is through a checklist. This is both specific and emblematic of any problems it might have. The younger brother, Ian (Tom Holland) does not have any memories of his father. He hopes to create some during his limited engagement with his father’s pants. We work down his checklist, which feels prescriptive for where the film is about to go, it shows us the emotional checkboxes it is about to tick off before it does the work. It’s such a linear progression of ideas. They remain deeply felt but do not become totally engaging as such.
Older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) is the comedic star of the show. The director must have had a very special person in their life and compassionately shares that story with us. The joy of their companionship keeps it from ever treading through the murky Disney tropes of dead parents and sad kids. Mostly, the shared journey is a delight. There is an interplay between the suburban death of culture and more radical, outsider ideas being squashed out by modernity. The boys not only chase their father, but also, magical concepts lost to time. They are searching for medieval enchantments of years they can never own, sold and repackaged as Mall Culture, theme park experiences emulating a better past (sounds a lot like going to the movies right now). They must utilize some magic to get the spirit of the old way back. The film truly needs some further emphasis on these points. It lays down a nice foundation for these contrasts, sets the nails in just right, and doesn’t hammer any of them in. The promise is left standing — there is a culture clash happening in a land that is losing its way. There are so many avenues to take this philosophy down, but Onward only uses it as window dressing and only some of the time.
What always seems to work is the brotherly connection. Holland and Pratt are having fun but not to the exclusion of the audience. There is also an intriguing play at sisterhood, with well-drawn women characters. Julia Louise-Dreyfus capably voices a concerned mother, who gives chase to the boys during their epic journey and develops a relationship with the secret best character of the film. Octavia Spencer is the ever-wonderful Manticore, a winged beast of another age, working at what was once a storied tavern of mythic proportions and is now a soulless mix of Dave & Busters and Medieval Times. The women create companionship that allows them to find their own midlife discovery too. They enable each other to become their better selves and have an amusing little story arc of their own. Onward offers a little something for all of its characters and all of its audience.
Pixar is a technical powerhouse, true wizards of the craft. If anything is abundantly clear in their work is that there are no glaring issues with technique. Every style is given space for expression. They would not half-ass any animation or detail. Here, the style does not feel so far departed from their competition. Illumination or especially Dreamworks could put out a trailer that looks this way and we would say boy they have progressed, but would not think anything else of it. There is no frame as expansively detailed as the millions of points of light in Coco‘s (2018) city of the dead or a chandelier as staggeringly perfect as the one in Toy Story 4. No moments of awe. The details are more broadly drawn. Everyone animates well, obviously, there is no objective fault in the craft. There just isn’t any forward progression there either. For a film entitled Onward it is more like a lateral move.
Onward is a perfectly fine movie. It does not make any tremendous missteps nor inspire any newfound affection in the form. It is a simple story well told. We enjoy the brotherly journey for all its worth and there is some connective emotional value to be had there. Nobody should be surprised when they walk out of the theater teary-eyed. The excellent Brandi Carlile song “Carried Me With You” puts a bold emotive signature on the proceedings in the credits. Without ever being emotionally manipulative or cloying, the film gets exactly where it needs to be: that for wherever the journey takes us, Onward may just be about appreciating what’s already in front of us.