Pixar’s latest film symbolically ushers in a new era for the iconic studio. Their first 11 films from the first Toy Story to the third are sort of the Classic Era, where every film was a masterpiece. Then, beginning with Cars 2 and ending with Toy Story 4, we have the Sequel Era; where the studio attempted to expand on their classics to middling, though usually great, results. They had a few original films during this era, like Inside Out and Coco, but mostly focused on sequels.
Now with Onward, we seemed to have entered a new era, which I unofficially call the Retrospective Era. As of this moment, Pixar will not produce anymore sequels. Every film from here will be an original project with new stories and new characters. The studio appears to be applying what they’ve learned from the previous 20 films to new projects. This opens up the potential for the studio to add more classics to their library.
This new film takes us to a world Pixar hasn’t previously explored; a world of wizards, fairies, and trolls. It’s a world full of wonder and magic. However, the magic wasn’t easy to learn. So, as more and more became discouraged from using it, they began to create new ways to get by. The invention of lightbulbs and fireplaces led to the world becoming a very modern place, where cellphones and cars are more commonplace than unicorns and wizard staffs.
In this modern fantasy world, we are introduced to Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), a timid teenager who has just turned 16. He is determined to be a more confident person as he is growing closer to becoming a man. But his own anxieties, and the presence of his fantasy-loving (or in their world history-loving) brother Barley (Chris Pratt), keep him from leaving his comfort zone.
But what he desires more than being more confident is to know his father. Ian never got to meet him, as he died before he was even born and when Barley was too young to remember him. Even though he’s gone, Ian might get his wish after all when his mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) presents him with a gift from his father: a wizard staff.
Along with this historical artifact, he has included a spell that is designed to bring him back for a full 24 hours in order to see who his sons have become in his absence. Ian attempts to perform the spell, but isn’t able to hold it long enough and only brings back his father’s bottom half. Now, he and Barley must race against time in order to find a way to complete the spell and bring their father fully back before he disappears for good.
There is a very resonate message to be taken from this premise involving the world itself. The idea that people left behind magic because it was too hard to learn perfectly reflects the way our society has advanced into today. We, as a species, tend to find the simplest ways to get by and avoid the more challenging aspects of life. We go by what gets us through today, but not what get us to tomorrow, so to speak.
As such, this movie becomes a parable about what we need versus what we want. The simplest way may be fine at first, but if we continue to follow it, we deny the challenges that we need. This story is a call to action for us to embrace the challenges of life again. Whether people actually respond well to this message is unclear, but it’s nice to have a movie with more on its mind than being a way to escape reality.
This great message is supported by the world that serves as its backdrop. As always, Pixar movies display the highest quality animation available today. From the environments to the characters, everything is only a few steps off from hyperrealism. But aside from the animation, the actual setting feels fully realized. Its modern fantasy setting feels more detailed than something like the 2017 Netflix film Bright. These aspects combined make a world that truly feels alive despite the fact that it was made in a computer.
The film is also brought to life by its exceptional voice cast. Tom Holland and Chris Pratt not only have great chemistry with each other, but also perfectly fit their respective roles as Ian and Barley. Holland is perfect as the timid high school teenager, while Pratt is great as the magic-obsessed man-child. Dreyfus and Octavia Spencer also have great chemistry as Laurel and the Manticore. This cast is all fantastic in their roles, and help to make their characters as lovable as they are.
The only flaw this movie might have is that it doesn’t do much to reinvent its own formula. It follows the basic story bits of a standard Pixar film, but aside from its new setting, the story we follow isn’t too different from any other world the studio has created. It can be pretty predictable at times. But even if predictable, it still has enough little twists and turns that are hard to see coming. Its basic story is only a very minor flaw in an otherwise perfect film.
Onward is probably Pixar’s most mainstream film yet, with a setting that isn’t a personification of a human concept or emotion. However, this doesn’t stop it from being an emotional film. It’s a gorgeous, fully realized fantasy world with stunning animation and a perfect voice cast. It may not be held in high regards now, but this feels like a film that, with age, will grow into another classic for a studio that has produced the best in family fare for almost 30 years, and is still knocking it out of the park today.