Onward Review: A Weird and Wonderful Tale of Brotherhood

Over the years, fans have come to expect certain things from Pixar’s films. You know going into any Pixar movie that the animation is going to be second-to-none, that the characters will be quirky and charming, and that you’re going to laugh quite a bit, but not nearly as much as you cry. Pixar has created a formula that pushes good movies, but the great ones are those that find something to add to that formula, elevating it to something deeper and more memorable. That’s exactly what writer/director Dan Scanlon achieves with Onward, Pixar’s weirdest and most deeply personal tale to date.

Onward stars Tom Holland and Chris Pratt as elf brothers Ian and Barley Lightfoot, who lost their father when they were very young. When Ian turns 16, their mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gives them both a gift from their father: a magical staff that could bring him back for 24 hours so that he could see who his sons grew up to be. Halfway through the spell, something goes wrong, sending Ian and Barley on a quest with the resurrected legs of their late father to try and find another source of magic in order to complete the spell. If they don’t complete the spell in one day’s time, they lose their only chance to see their dad.

Onward is a weird movie, but that really works in its favor. The film builds a vast and unique world in the opening minutes, combining elements of fantasy and magic with modern technology and society. Not only does this set up some really wonderful sets and imagery to awe at throughout the film, but it also works to make the story and characters seem much more relatable, even in such a fantastical story.

The world is fun to play in and enjoy, but it’s the characters of Onward that make it memorable. This film and these brothers feel so real, and that’s because they are. While Scanlon didn’t grow up in a world of total fantasy, he does have an older brother that he’s very close to, and they did lose their father when Dan was just a year old. The relationship at the core of Onward is a very real one, as is the film’s main struggle. Scanlon’s connection to his brother and their journey creates a kind of authenticity rarely seen in animated ventures, even those made by Pixar.

Ian and Barley’s relationship is constantly growing and evolving over the course of their quest, much like that of any real pair of brothers. This evolution results in one of the most wonderful movie misdirects in years. There’s not some big twist at the end of Onward, but there’s an element of surprise in the final act as you realize Scanlon spends the entire movie telling you a completely different story than the one you think you’ve been watching. One moment shifts the entire narrative and it will break your heart, especially if you have a sibling.

As you can probably guess by the way I’ve talked about Onward throughout this review, I have a brother of my own. I’m the oldest of two boys and my brother is about six years younger than me, an age gap resulting in quite a few differences between us. I see a lot of my brother and I in Barley and Ian, as our relationship is never simple and we often have polar opposite ways of approaching a problem. Onward makes me think of my brother more than any other film has. Not about him as a person, necessarily, but about how I treat him and about how he sees me. For a family movie about elves and magic to cause me to re-evaluate how I love my own brother that I’ve known for 23 years? That’s the real spell that Onward casts.

You’re not going to have the exact same reaction to Onward that I do, because we’re all different people who carry different stories into the theater, but it's sure to make you feel something. Personal experience is the heart beating at the center of Scanlon’s film, and no matter what you’re bringing to the table, it’s going to find a way to stick with you. There are a couple of speed bumps in the first act that cause a slow start to the film, but the world created and the expertly crafted finale make it more than worth the wait. Onward is a treasure that will connect with Pixar fans for quite a long time.

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Rating: 4 out of 5

Pixar's Onward is now playing in theaters.

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