Onward Movie Review
Even subpar Pixar makes for an entertaining watch. Onward, from the director of Monsters University, follows two suburbanized elves (?) as they go on a grand adventure to resurrect the upper half of their long-dead father, even if they—nor the audience—quite find the magic they’re looking for.
Voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, Onward is your quintessential buddy film—two brothers who are polar opposites but who, throughout their quest, discover they have a closer bond than first thought. It’s the schmaltzy hook that only works in kids’ movies, but even still it feels a little too on the nose for the esteemed studio.
More notably, for a movie that is set in a modern world inhabited by formerly magical creatures (centaurs, mermaids, and rabid, trash-mucking unicorns), it lacks a couple of seemingly obvious, seemingly easy-to-grab ingredients: magic and oddball humor.
Onward is about two elf brothers. They have a pet dragon that coughs out tiny flumes of fire. Angry unicorns dig through their garbage. Their mother’s stepdad is a police officer who happens to be a centaur. And yet the movie takes to heart its central premise—that everyone has forgotten magic—a little too strongly.
It’s not that Onward is flat. It’s largely entertaining, bolstered by the two leads and a great supporting voice cast. The quest is amusing, for the most part. It moves along at a fast-enough clip, even though I checked the time once. And the film’s final third is nearly good enough to make up for the sagging middle.
It just needed more life, a little more creativity, and, well, a little more magic, a special spark to elevate the material. It’s not that, visually, there isn’t a lot to look at; the animators were creative. But the story fails to truly take advantage of this weird, alternative world Onward exists in. While some gags land well—floating down a river on a giant Cheeto enlarged by magic, the centaur boyfriend revealing a sexy secret, etc.—the movie doesn’t elicit enough laughter or even quiet smirks given how much slathered-on-the-counter-for-the-taking opportunity there is to do just that.
Sure, Onward didn’t need to be outright funny. But it wouldn’t have hurt.
Had the emotional side of the story been more developed, more nuanced, more… well, Pixar-ish… Onward could have gotten by just fine, but the ending is pretty predictable (and oddly sad… after all that, the main character doesn’t even achieve his primary objective) and not particularly moving. Not bad, but not tearjerkingly good either.
Onward may thrust you forward, but in what direction? Its qualities should not be overlooked, but the movie never quite finds its compass—there’s a quest, but a quest that doesn’t quite feel magical. It’s not a great Pixar movie. Then again, even subpar Pixar makes for an entertaining watch.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.