Onward Review: One Step Forward, Two Steps Sideways

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Ironically, Pixar’s latest original property since 2017’s Coco also happens to be an incredibly by-the-books fairytale lacking almost any of the magic that once defined this studio. That’s not to say that it’s bad; even low-tier Pixar is better than most of the stuff that other mainstream animated studios are putting out. But Onward unfortunately doesn’t do enough to stand out and, therefore, becomes fairly forgettable by the end.

The trailers made this film out to be something more akin to the likes of a typical Disney or even Dreamworks animation, and not something that would typically be associated with the revered Pixar. Blending a human-like world with fantasy creatures seemed like an eye-rolling idea that didn’t feel very inspired, especially considering how Disney used a very similar idea with Zootopia. The character designs also felt lackluster and too similar to ones that the company used previously. Let’s be honest, how many more characters with the same long nose are we going to get?

But looking at the final product, it is hard to deny just how far the studio has evolved over the years in terms of the quality of their visuals. Many of the backgrounds, buildings, and set pieces all look photorealistic; the level of detail that went into designing this world is very commendable, which is something Pixar always seems to get right. Everything from the fabric of clothing, to the cracks within individual rocks, to the lighting of streets at nighttime is painstakingly rendered here.

The actual characters, however, are still as off-putting as they were in the trailer, especially in comparison to the rest of the film’s style. Similarly to The Good Dinosaur, the cartoony character designs find it difficult to blend into the unbelievably stunning backgrounds. Although with Onward, this stylistic choice makes a tad more sense, because the fantasy creatures are supposed to be out-of-place in such a modernized world. However, the more likely reason is for marketability.

Thankfully, the solid voice acting gives these strange-looking characters more than enough life and charm. While it seems as if Pixar is trying to ride the Marvel train by casting Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, the pair have great chemistry and define their characters’ personalities through committed voice work. Although certainly not as memorable as the performances for Woody, Buzz, or Carl Fredricksen, Holland and Pratt sell the emotional and comedic beats well enough to be entertaining.

But when looking past all of the aspects that are obviously good, the narrative isn’t even on-par with some of Pixar’s more average material like Incredibles 2. The film revolves around two brothers who discover that magic still exists in their world, and they try to utilize it to revive their dead father. But when doing so, they only manage to recover the lower half of his body, so they must embark on a quest to find a magical gem that will restore him. The only true risk that this fairly standard story takes is attempting to convince the audience to care for a pair of walking pants, which isn’t very effective as the main hook of an adventure plot. The relationship between the two brothers, played by Holland and Pratt, is far more fleshed out and relatable, especially for those who have siblings. Their interactions feel very natural and have a nice brotherly charm. Unfortunately, the true meat of this dynamic doesn’t come until far too late into the runtime.

The tragic reality of Onward is that there aren’t enough wild ideas or strong character moments that would make it stand out in Pixar’s filmography. It is far from bad, and has enough redeeming elements in its art direction, voice work, and emotional core to make it a worthwhile trip to the theater. But as it stands, this movie remains largely forgettable at the end of the day. It’s just a shame that, for a movie titled Onward, the quality of Pixar’s storytelling hasn’t taken the necessary steps forward in years.

Score: ★★★