Review: Onward (2020) – Ordinary Myths and Legends

Onward

Since cinemas reopned, viewers have been starved for reliable content in a time of delays that has caused an unfortunate drought for flailing companies like Cineworld and Odeon. The one noticeable difference however is that child friendly fare such as Disney Pixar’s Onward seems to be holding up quite well with the more busy screenings (at least here in the UK) are the afternoon kid screenings. Be it because parents need something to do with their kids or the fact that Pixar films are reliable entertainment any time of the day, regardless of circumstance. Despite being one of Pixar’s more forgettable films in a collection of features that love to push boundaries, Onward has found a place in this new age as a reliable experience, not a special one.

Onward’s world is much like ours, full of gridlocked freeways and family friendly chain restaurants but with one small tweak. The people living in it are elves, griffins, fairies and other mythical creatures. Telling the story of teen Elf Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), a 16 year old who is gifted a magical staff by his long deceased father, along with a spell to bring him back for just one day. Desperate to see him he sets off on a quest with his clumsy brother Barley (Chris Pratt) to see their dad again.

Although embracing the signature tone of Pixar royalty, Onward seems to borrow more than create here. The world here, despite proclaiming its originality feels more like a replica of ours, not one brimming with the possibilities of what Onward seems to promise. Not only does it toy with the same expectations that Brave cleverly subverted first, but its discussion of families in transition isn’t as nimbly handled as it is in Inside Out. The various riffs on classic creatures even borrows outright from A Bug’s Life with Barley and Ian’s pet dragon feeling like a graphically upgraded callback to Pixar prior.

Telling its story competently but without much flair, this tale of brotherhood never over dramatises a simple story, but it is impossible to ignore just how thin it is for the adult audience. Both Ian and Barley are delightfully breezy characters with enough quirks to emulate personality but most of this is because of excellent voice performances by Holland and Pratt in particular. This sibling duo make a light film more than it is, often glossing over the many poorly fleshed out side characters that fill Onward’s world. While never stale thanks to Pratt’s over-enthusiasm and Holland’s awkwardness it isn’t bold in the slightest.

The alien nature of these inventive places usually seep out of the animation, with animators using size in Toy Story or A Bug’s Life to build atmosphere but here the trick is reuesed for one of the more memorable action beats but little else. While Ian and Barley are new to the concept of magic, Onward wants you to feel it right from the start. Just because these two don’t believe doesn’t mean we shouldn’t either. Not only is the colour palette here almost depressive, even its main characters are a melancholy shade of blue, everything here is painfully ordinary. A car chase with fairies feels just like any other car chase, instead with an Ant-Man twist that is entertaining but used.

An empathetic and occasionally thrilling adventure film cannot avoid feeling like a film a little too targeted at a younger audience, despite the impressive double coding pedigree standing behind it. Lacking in some consistent humour and rolling from one contrived plot device to the next instead of coming together naturally, Onwards can’t quite find the right gear. Although there isn’t such a thing as a bad Pixar film, Onward makes its mission not to ruffle feathers, making a dependable but utterly blase adventure with a great voice cast, some nice visuals but not much muster.

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