Support Local Journalism. Donate to Cleveland Scene.

Pixar's 'Onward' is Predictably Solid Family Fare 

Like virtually all Pixar films, from 1995's Toy Story to 2017's Coco, the premise of Onward, which opens Friday in wide release, is built on solid imaginative foundations. Set in a fantasy land that resembles suburban U.S.A., the film is a standard teenage quest story in which the protagonists happen to be trolls (or elfs, or something).

On his 16th birthday, the socially awkward Ian (Tom Holland) is left a gift from his father, who died before he was born. It's a wizard's staff, complete with an incantation that will supposedly bring Ian's father back to life for 24 hours. Ian and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) attempt the spell, but only get it half right. Their father returns as a sentient, but unspeaking and unhearing, set of legs.

The film's central story, then, follows the brothers as they attempt to hunt for a magic stone that will allow them to cast the spell again, in time to see their full father in the flesh before he disappears forever. They are pursued, through the night, by their attentive mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and a griffin-esque restaurant owner (Octavia Spencer) with a powerful, if dormant, magical heritage.

Like good PG fare, Onward is full of memorable visual gags. The silent, torso-less father accompanies the brothers on their quest and is the source of endless slapstick. So is Barley, who is reduced to Thumbelina size when another spell goes awry and then accidentally provokes a biker-gang of fairies. The condition of Barley's van, too, a junkyard salvage decked out in purple spray paint, provides recurring humor and even gets a soldier's send-off. It's not all physical humor, though. Complete with a climactic confrontation and a touching emotional resolution, Onward is high-grade family entertainment of the sort audiences expect from Pixar.

And yet, after the revelatory talking toys, fish and cars of previous Pixar worlds, to say nothing of the visual splendor of Coco or the bold visions of Wall-E and Inside Out, Onward seems destined to land in the middle of the pack within the Pixar canon. Though sweet, it's somewhat pedestrian in its ambitions, and looks to be capitalizing on Stranger Things fervor alongside the Ghostbusters reboot later this year. Beyond the magical history of the elves, the impulses and relationships — and even activities — of these characters are entirely human. They go out to dinner at kitschy chain restaurants. They play variations on Dungeons and Dragons. It's all extremely suburban.

For the record, this critique speaks more to Pixar's high bar than Onward's deficiencies, which are only evident by comparison. The director, Dan Scanlon, previously helmed Monsters University, another Pixar middle-of-the-packer.

The Pixar writers' room, it must be said, remains the best in the biz at nailing the beats of any family film. When the revelatory moral of the story hits, it does so with surprising emotional force and clarity.

We’re keeping you informed…
...and it’s what we love to do. From local politics and culture to national news that hits close to home, Scene Magazine has been keeping Cleveland informed for years.

It’s never been more important to support local news sources, especially as we all deal with the ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic. Almost everything Scene is about -- our stories, our events, our advertisers -- comes down to getting together. With events on hold, and no print distribution for the foreseeable future, every little bit helps.

A free press means accountability and a well-informed public, and we want to keep our unique and independent reporting available for many, many years to come.

If quality journalism is important to you, please consider a donation to Scene. Every reader contribution is valuable and so appreciated, and goes directly to support our coverage of critical issues and neighborhood culture. Thank you.

Now Playing

Onward is not showing in any theaters in the area.

What others are saying

  • Comments (2)

    Showing 1-2 of 2

    Add a comment

    Subscribe to this thread:
    Showing 1-2 of 2

    Add a comment


    Never miss a beat

    Sign Up Now

    Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.


    Staff Pick Events

    • The Room @ Cedar Lee Theatre

      • Second Saturday of every month

    © 2020 Cleveland Scene: 737 Bolivar Rd., Suite 4100, Cleveland, OH 44115, (216) 241-7550
    Logos and trademarks on this site are property of their respective owners.

    Website powered by Foundation