What's the first question everyone asks whenever you’ve just watched a new Pixar film? “Where does it rank?” Of course, they’re asking where it fits within the hierarchy of Pixar films. And let’s face it, even a bad Pixar film tops most cinema fare these days, so when we say that Onward ranks somewhere in the upper third of the pack, that’s actually pretty high praise. The first thing you should know is that Onward doesn’t really feel like most Pixar films. Yes, it’s warm and inviting, is busting with grand themes, and, as expected, always finds a way to blend humor, action and tons of heart. But this one is a bit more mature than most, with a fairly sophisticated examination of family relationships at its core. That’s not to say kids won’t love it. They will. But with a runtime of 104 minutes (the longest of any Pixar film to date) and a bit darker tone, it just might be better suited for older adolescents -- and adults -- rather than the toddler set.
Onward opens with a voice-over that tells us of the magic that once existed in the fantasy world of New Mushroomton where the film is set. Full of elves, trolls, centaurs, dragons, and other fantastic beasts, Mushroomton surprisingly resembles our own real world where cell phones, cars, and electronic gadgets have suddenly taken over. Gone are the spells, magic, curses, and cultural roots that had been in place for thousands of years, leaving in their wake a soulless populace more interested in convenience and instant gratification than the old ways of wizardry and difficult-to-learn spells. In other words, a society that loses its sense of self. Sound familiar?
In the now-modernized Mushroomton, Barley (Chris Pratt) is a boisterous 19-year-old elf who loves magic and succeeds in role-playing games yet struggles to find success in the real world. Barley was a young boy when his father passed way while his younger brother Ian (Tom Holland) was too young to remember their dad.
On Ian’s 16th birthday, the two receive an unexpected gift that sets into motion an ultimate quest that will drive the momentum for the remainder of the film. Barley is a master at the Dungeons & Dragons-like RPG game of Quests of Yore, and harbors an encyclopedic recollection of myths and ancient spells. So when the two brothers discover that their gift is a magic staff that can bring back their father for a day, their quest begins for the missing stone that will complete the spell.
Directed by Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) from a script he wrote with Jason Headley (A Bad Idea Gone Wrong), Onward contains all the jokes, quips, emotion, and wit we expect from a Pixar film, while also exploring many layers-of-life things like death of culture, loss of loved ones, and appreciation of the things we have – all hallmarks of a Pixar film as well.The film also stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as single mom and devoted mother to the boys, and Mel Rodriguez as a centaur cop named Colt Lightfoot.
Speaking of Pixar hallmarks, the world-building in Onward is absolutely spectacular and unquestionably rivals the lavish underwater world of Finding Nemo and the innovative styling of The Incredibles. With Onward, we’re straight into a fantasy world of Dungeons and Dragons with a perilous quest that features tiny biker-gang sprites, down-on-their-luck unicorns, Indiana Jones-like puzzles, and a once-fearful part lion, part bat and part scorpion Manticore named Corey (Octavia Spencer) who now prefers modern convenience and has since learned to tap her practical side. Friend or enemy, we love watching all these characters, and actually care about them as well. That's what happens with a Pixar film; we become invested in the story. And that's certainly what happens here.
Dark, scary, overly-complex, and about 15 minutes too long, Onward will likely fly right over the heads of younger audience members… or else scare their pants off. So, be aware of that if you're planning to hit the theater with toddlers in tow. Certainly not a top-five Pixar film, but with a shout out in the credits and several D&D nods, don’t be surprised if this thing finds a cult-like audience from within the RPG crowd.
Note: There isn’t a Pixar short this time around, however, as confirmed earlier in February, there is a Simpsons short called "Playdate With Destiny" that will precedes the main feature.
(Released by Disney/Pixar and rated “PG” for action/peril and some mild thematic elements.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.