*Dedicated to my brother, whose continued enthusiasm in all he does continues to inspire me to be the best older sibling I can be*
I’ve been a cinema attendee for as long as I can remember and I’ve been watching movies for longer than that. There’s just something special to me about watching something in a cinema, regardless of the time of day. I’ve done morning shows, matinees, evenings, midnight premieres, repeat viewings and every single one is different. There’s a certain comradery when you watch something with a group of people, or indeed just one other person, and I don’t think I’ve ever taken that for granted. The cinema has always been there and I have always loved it. Then came 2020, a global pandemic and that escape from reality suddenly wasn’t an option anymore. A lot will be said about COVID-19 in the years to come and in the history books looking back but for those of us who have had to live through it, we will each have a different thing we missed. This is such a first world problem and a personal one but being without the cinema has really sucked. Watching something brand new for the first time on a 40inch screen just hits differently and the first of many experiences like that was the PIXAR film Onward.
The plot follows Elf brothers Ian and Barley as they embark on a quest to find a magical stone that will resurrect their dead father for 24 hours. Unfortunately for them, this quest comes with a time limit because they have already used up one stone to bring back his legs. As a Lord of the Rings fan, I was instantly onboard with a magical quest and the quest itself does not disappoint. Each of the mythical monsters that Ian and Barley encounter, even the ones that they don’t, are based on their respective counterparts in the RPG Dungeons & Dragons. The game manual’s publisher Wizards of the West Coast are given their due thanks during Onward‘s end credits. Not only is this dedication to the source material a neat nod for fans of the game but it could even be what sparks a new players interest in the game, as it did for me. It also leads to a brilliant running gag about The Gelatinous Cube, which might be my favourite in the entire film.
Onward‘s biggest strength is the bond between it’s two main characters and their individual relationships with their father. The eldest brother Barley was was a child when his father passed away so has very few memories of him. In contrast is Ian who had just been born so has no memories of him at all. This really is the crux of the film because if you have any experiences like this in your own life then it’s going to make the characters and their internal struggles more relatable. For me, it mirrors the relationship that me and my sister have with my Grandpa who passed away when I was 13 and she was only 6. We were both so very lucky to have been able to spend any time with him but I have so many more memories of him than she does. This is to say nothing of my brother who was born a couple of years later and never got to meet him, which hurts more than I can put into words. The other through-line is the brother’s relationship to each other, which again will hit differently depending on your life experience. As the eldest of 3 children I got to play a huge part in raising my siblings, though the age gap between us was larger than Ian and Barley’s. It’s difficult for me not to see my siblings in Ian and myself in Barley so by the time Onward is reaching it’s conclusion, I’m having all of the emotions. However the way in which the film reaches it’s emotional climax feels a little cheap to me, with too much of a focus on the Buddy Comedy plot structure. Our main characters have to fall out in order to realise how much they need/miss each other, which is fine when done well but Onward places their disagreement near the end of the film and resolves it 5 minutes later. It feels like that plot thread is only there because the creative team felt like it had to be and, for me, it’s the only real issue.
According to some people, there is a much bigger issue with the film and that is the setting/design. Onward takes place in a realm where magic exists but was forgotten by technology, meaning that their world functions like ours and some say that if this is the case then the film should have just featured regular people instead of fantasy creatures. Now I see where this criticism is coming from however I think that aesthetic is a perfectly viable reason for this choice. This fantasy world has brighter colours than our own and allows for some small design aspects like turrets on top of skyscrapers, not to mention all of the fantasy-based puns. The only genuine critique that I can take in this area is the designs of the characters themselves which, despite looking good, look like they were made by PIXAR. Early PIXAR films didn’t have a particular “style” and instead were more focussed on how they could push the boundaries of animation with possibly the best example being Monsters Inc. Their animation is still top notch but it feels like they’ve settled and aren’t really pushing boundaries anymore, although I hope that some day they will again.
At the end of the day, I still really like Onward and, had it not been for the global pandemic, i feel like it could have been a big hitter for the studio. Instead it is relegated to the second lowest grossing film, beaten only by The Good Dinosaur, although it seems to have done well on streaming sites and VOD services. I hope that this one isn’t forgotten and I’m glad to see that this has marked the next phase of original ideas from PIXAR Studios after their slate of sequels. If this is how that phase is starting, I can’t wait to see where it goes.
Until Next Time…