Over the middle of the Onward — the latest animated film from Disney-owned Pixar — one of the film’s two lead characters, Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt), makes a tearful bid for his purple van. The van is really special to Barley. It has a custom unicorn decal on its side. It only starts if the key is in the “sweet spot” of the ignition. And it has a name: Guinevere. But barley should put Guinevere to death. The way the onward send-off sets up—how the van gallops like a horse (unicorn?) as it rides into the sunset while barley saluting the vehicle. Unfortunately, the rest of the front is often at that level. Doesn’t come close.
Instead, it simply backtracks on what Pixar, its parent Disney, and its sister studio Marvel have done. At its core, Onward is a story about two siblings who travel through strange lands and then discover strength in each other, as in Frozen 2. They are siblings Barley (Pratt), an overconfident boy who thinks he always has the best ideas, and his younger brother, Ian (Tom Holland), a flabby teenager with low self-confidence. That’s what Pratt and Holland are channeling their Marvel Cinematic Universe characters. Next is also about a boy who disregards his family to join his dead father, as in cocoaAnd its world is filled with anthropomorphic (magical) animals, as in zootopia, Everything seems familiar, and what came before doesn’t improve.
That doesn’t mean Onward is a bad film. In fact, it’s downright entertaining, offers tons of slapstick comedy and builds into a surprisingly emotional finale that touches your heart. The latter bit is courtesy of director Dan Scanlon, who co-wrote a semi-autobiographical story with Jason Headley (A Bad Idea Gone Wrong) and Keith Bunin (Horns). But that climax feels a bit unearned because the rest of the Pixar film hasn’t done the heavy-handed work required. Rather than emphasizing its protagonist and themes from the very beginning, Further largely skips it until its third act, which is clearly too late. Still, it takes the help of a flashback montage to deliver the message. By Pixar’s lofty standards, Onward is more Monsters University (also than Scanlon) than Inside Out.
Opens further by providing a bite-sized history of his world: magic once ruled, but science and technology took over because it was easy for everyone. Why bother mastering magic when you can just flick a switch to turn on the light? It is in this dreary suburban existence that we find Ian (Holland) and Barley (Pratt), two blue-skinned elves and their single mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). The father passed away before Ian was born, while Barley has some precious memories of him. Ian’s life is defined by his father’s absence, as he develops into a panicked wreck who can’t even ask his classmates to party. Meanwhile, Barley has completely invested himself in the past, including a Dungeons & Dragons-type game called Quest of Yours, which he considers historical.
Everything changes on Ian’s 16th birthday, when his mother tells him that his father has left him a gift: a magician’s staff, a magic gem, and a spell that can one day bring him back. Ian and Barley are happy, but their enthusiasm wanes after the spell falters and leaves them with a half-resurrected father – just his feet. Relying solely on the discovery of his old knowledge, Barley declares that all he needs is a new magical gem, using which he can restore the other half of the father’s body before disappearing in 24 hours. Like the game of Barley, The Forward is structured around a quest as the two brothers venture into uncharted lands. This is a classic hero’s journey. Along the way, they learn more about each other, improve on their flaws, and “gelatinous cubes,
If you’re into fantasy adventure role-playing games — whether it’s the physical or digital variety — Ahead will feel right up your alley. For what it’s worth, the Pixar film attempts to remove adventure tropes. Yet at the same time, there’s content to play into tropes elsewhere. It wants to have its cake and eat it too. The first stop on Ian and Barley’s quest is a dangerous tavern owned by a manticore (Octavia Spencer). It’s drawn and framed in the most predictable ways: spooky, haunted, and under a cloud of fog. But when the brothers actually walk through the door, they find that the inn has turned into just another restaurant. And the manticore, Corey (Spencer), isn’t trying to roast you alive. Instead, he is too busy running the place and making the guests happy.
There’s a lesson here, about the risky adventures that are giving way to family-friendly corporatization that can be pursued even further. For a movie about quests, it’s strange that there are no antagonists here. Sure, mom Laurel and her new centaur police officer boyfriend (Mel Rodriguez) are trying to capture the kids, but only because they’re trying to keep them safe from a curse tied to a great beast. And even that great beast doesn’t happen much as a real adversary. What then appears to be a lot safer and lower stakes, just like the restaurant-tavern run by Manticore, which has consistently taken advantage of liability issues. In turn, it feels the same for Pixar — embarking on an enjoyable adventure that innovates in its early years — which is disappointing for a studio of its caliber.
Still, Onward delivers as a gentle, heartfelt coming-of-age story. It adds up to that with some really funny jokes and moments, like getting it hilariously wrong or discovering yore facts like the barley little deus ex machine. But unlike its protagonist, Ian, who gains confidence and finds a new one, the Pixar film never really moves beyond its simple, surface-level designs. It tells the audience to always be on the lookout for the magic within itself, but it can’t find that spark for itself.
It will further release on March 6 in cinemas in India and elsewhere.