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“Onward” Film Review

Movies are magic, so it’s only right that Pixar would make a movie about that very topic. “Onward” is Pixar’s latest attempt to corner the market on films where I am almost guaranteed to cry. Directed by Dan Scanlon (“Monsters University”), “Onward” casts its spell from the very start, detailing the world and how it changed from a place of magic to something more like our world. Their world of magic has given way to a place overpopulated with cars, bills and kids’ birthday parties.  

Just like most stories, this one starts with a birthday. Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland) is turning 16, but despite growing older he can’t shake his self-doubt and social awkwardness. His seemingly fearless, carefree older brother Barley (voiced by Chris Pratt) is stuck in arrested development and yearns for a great quest like the ones that have faded into myth.  

They have almost nothing in common until their mom, Laurel (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus), gives them a magical staff, a rare gem and a letter from their late father. The boys are enthralled with these gifts. Barley only has faint memories of their father, while Ian never got to know his dad at all before he passed away. The combination of tools almost brings back their dad — but not quite. Instead they only manage to bring back his legs. Now they have just 24 hours to try the spell again or lose the chance to see him again forever. 

Photo credit: Pixar

Thus begins the greatest quest ever to befall these two lowly elves. On their journey, the two brothers encounter a manticore (Octavia Spencer) at a thinly veiled Chuck E. Cheese, run into a group of dangerous pixie bikers and avoid their mom’s boyfriend (Mel Rodriguez). The storytelling can feel a bit serialized, but as the different tangents begin to merge together the pace of the film picks up speed, and so does your interest. 

Something that kept gnawing at me ever since the first trailer is how much the movie looks like a DreamWorks animated film. This gnawing feeling doesn’t go away, but the style ultimately fits the direction of film despite never feeling truly original. It comes across like a world that could have stepped out of a “Shrek” film. 

The film still manages to find some bonafide originality. Unlike most fantasy stories, “Onward” lacks a true villain. There is no Sauron or Vladimir Harkonnen. Instead, “Onward” offers a dangerous curse as its most menacing obstacle. In an interesting turn, the curse is also something that our central heroes aren’t even aware of until near the end of the film. Laurel and the aforementioned manticore do their best to handle the hex, leading to some of film’s funnier moments. 

Photo credit: Pixar

On a whole, the movie’s humor is light. There are no belly laughs but the jokes keep you entertained without getting stale. For context, I laughed more during “Toy Story 3,” whereas for me this movie’s humor quotient leans more towards “Monsters University.” What the film lacks in laugh-out-loud moments it more than makes up for in charm.

The brothers’ interactions together and their time with their dad’s legs are especially memorable. Everything about the film leads to an emotional climax that I was not prepared for in any way, shape or form. Did I cry during this heartfelt scene? I did, and I’m proud of it. Tears flowed and I am genuinely excited to see this movie again for a chance to revisit those emotions. 

A powerful emotional ending can’t quite save “Onward” and elevate it to one of the top Pixar films, but it’s still an experience worth seeking out. 

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Featured image credit: Disney/Pixar

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