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Onward Movie Review

Onward (2020) movie poster Onward

Theatrical Release: March 6, 2020 / Running Time: 97 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Dan Scanlon / Writers: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin (original story & screenplay)

Voice Cast: Tom Holland (Ian Lightfoot), Chris Pratt (Barley Lightfoot), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Laurel Lightfoot), Octavia Spencer (The Manticore), Mel Rodriguez (Colt Bronco), Kyle Bornheimer (Wilden Lightfoot - Dad), Lena Waithe (Officer Specter), Ali Wong (Officer Gore), Grey Griffin (Dewdrop - Pixie Dusters Leader), Tracey Ullman (Grecklin - Pawn Shop Owner), Wilmer Valderrama (Gaxton - College Friend), George Psarras (Officer Avel), John Ratzenberger (Construction Worker Fennwick)


Sequels make money. That's not a hypothesis. You can look over decades of box office figures to see definitively that the successors of films that are popular enough to inspire them consistently draw big crowds.
They don't always or even often outperform their predecessors, but they typically don't have to do that to turn a healthy profit. A look at 2019's top grossers testifies to this reality. Of the top 16 domestic earners, ten were sequels. In addition, two were remakes, one (Hobbs & Shaw) was a spin-off, and one belonged to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and made use of already established characters. One of the remaining two was classified as adapted for awards purposes: Joker, a new take on a very familiar character. Which leaves us with just Us, Jordan Peele's dark, creative horror film, as the only one of the top 16 that was completely original.

Filmmaking is a business, so if you're ignoring this demand for branded entertainment with built-in audiences, you're failing your shareholders. Storytelling, however, is an art and one on which Pixar Animation Studios was founded. It seems fitting that Pixar's first film and still cornerstone franchise has the word "story" in its title because for all of the breathtaking computer-animated visuals the studio has given us over the years, it's the writing that makes their greatest works so dear to our hearts. Specifically, Pixar has excelled at creating inventive universes from the ground up. Films like Toy Story, The Incredibles, Monsters, Inc., WALL-E, Up, Finding Nemo, Inside Out and so on have enchanted us with their colorful characters, worlds, and operating procedures.

In the 2000s, Pixar was introducing a new universe just about every year and each bore little resemblance to the one before it. In the 2010s, after Toy Story 3 became the studio's biggest blockbuster with over $1 billion earned worldwide, sequels and spin-offs became integral to Pixar's plan, undoubtedly out of some acknowledgement of the $7.4 billion that parent company Disney spent to acquire them and of the brand-driven strategy with which Disney CEO Bob Iger has changed show business. It's not like Pixar simply dragged and dropped their old digital files and remade their beloved films with a twist. Monsters University, Finding Dory, Incredibles 2, Toy Story 4, and even the largely unloved two Cars sequels are packed with new ideas, characters, and settings. But there's something about getting to explore a completely new world that none of these works could supply. So while all of these (minus the Cars sequels that were seemingly made to keep merchandise sales flowing) reached great heights commercially on strong reviews and word of mouth, the recent Pixar films that people are most likely to rave about are Coco and Inside Out, self-contained works that hooked them in with no prerequisite viewing.

It's an oversimplification to say that originality always triumphs. Brave isn't as good as you'd like it to be, Ratatouille is Pixar's most overrated film, and The Good Dinosaur is simply their worst. Nonetheless, it is so refreshing for the studio to return to original storytelling on Onward, a highly inventive comic adventure that lives up to their gold standard.

Elfen brothers Barley and Ian Lightfoot share a lighthearted moment with the legs of their dead father in Disney-Pixar's "Onward."

Directed and partially written by Monsters University helmer Dan Scanlon, Onward tells the story of two brothers in a fantastical world that has over time devolved into something more closely resembling ours. Ian (voiced by Tom Holland, current Spider-Man) and Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt, Marvel's Star-Lord) are pointy-eared blue elves. Their teenage years in suburbia are not especially magical or exotic. We sweat with the socially awkward Ian as he stumbles through inviting some semi-familiar classmates to a 16th birthday party he cancels in the same breath. Barley, meanwhile, has been stretching his "gap year" by mainly sitting around the house and playing an equivalent of Dungeons & Dragons. Barley is uniquely fascinated by the rich and whimsical history of the family's town, where wizards, quests, and magic once were all real forces, not just fodder for themed family restaurants.

For Ian's 16th, his mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gives the boys something their late father left for them. It's a staff with a gem and instructions to bring back Mr. Lightfoot for one full day. Early on, the film has already tactfully established the void left behind by Dad's passing. Ian has no memories of his father and Barley only has three or four, yet Dad's shadow hangs over them, with Ian even editing an answering machine message to be able to simulate talking with him. So, the prospect of getting to spend 24 hours with the man who contributed half of their DNA is more than a little exciting for the brothers. Alas, in the tradition of Pixar complications, the spell doesn't work completely and Mr. Lightfoot has materialized as simply a pair of legs, dressed in loafers, pants, and his signature purple socks.

Naturally, Ian, Barley, and Dad's legs embark on an adventure to get the rare stone needed to bring back the rest of Mr. Lightfoot temporarily. They're racing against the clock; the spell only lasts until the following day's sunset. But with Barley relying upon his knowledge of fantasy role-playing games and Ian utilizing common sense, the two hop into Barley's trusty, rusty van Guinevere and set their sights on the mountain believed to hold the uncommon gem they'll need to complete the spell, braving peril and biker pixies in the process.

With The Manticore by her side, the brothers' mom Laurel talks her way out of police officer trouble.

There are some unmistakable formulaic elements in play here, as Onward assumes the mold of a road trip buddy comedy, a label you could apply to a number of Pixar's early films and countless other live-action and animated movies.
But this supremely fun expedition reveals there's nothing wrong with the formulas if you've got good material to plug into them. In this case, Scanlon and his new-to-Pixar co-writers Keith Bunin (Horns, HBO's "In Treatment") and Jason Headley have great material for us, making it easy to avoid any familiar aspects of the design. Scanlon, who began at Pixar as a storyboard artist on 2006's Cars and has been part of their "senior creative team" since 2012's Brave, takes to heart the importance the studio has long placed on story and characters. Onward employs the studio's exemplary storytelling principles, missing no opportunity to supply detail, motivation, and personality.

There is more than enough humor and heart to power this fun adventure that doesn't remind you of past Pixar hits in tone or setting. Onward reminded me more of '80s pleasures like The Goonies and Adventures in Babysitting. Even in my daytime screening's mostly empty theater, the film wrung plenty of laughs and more than a few tears from me.

As an added bonus, Onward manages to earn points for tasteful representation. The notion of Pixar being a boys' club is about the only stinging, meaningful criticism that has been lobbed at the studio. While Scanlon, his fellow writers, and the two lead voice actors are all white men, the cast is otherwise quite diverse, with Octavia Spencer stealing scenes as family restaurateur The Manticore and Mel Rodriguez amusing as centaur police officer Colt Bronco (whom you might mistake for Pixar staple John Ratzenberger). There's even a scene in which Lena Waithe and Ali Wong voice police officers, with the former becoming the first openly lesbian character in a Disney-branded film. It's a small and easily forgotten moment that has already been taken to task by many who haven't yet seen the film, but the journey begins with one step and I don't see anything wrong with the treatment.

What remains to be seen is how the public receives Onward. There is a dearth of quality entertainment in theaters this time of year, which has made March a time for studios to unspool movies with blockbuster potential if not quite blockbuster expectations. Disney in particular has flourished this month, with 2010's Alice in Wonderland, Oz the Great and Powerful, 2015's Cinderella, Zootopia, 2017's Beauty and the Beast, and Captain Marvel all putting up big numbers. They've also had a few underperformers in A Wrinkle in Time and last year's Dumbo. Onward is presently tracking for a $45 million opening weekend in North America, which would put it at the shallow end of Pixar debuts. Word of mouth should help this film stick around amidst modest competition, but I can only hope that the studio is rewarded for such great original storytelling instead of having no choice but to sheepishly pencil in a Toy Story 5. No matter how Onward performs, Pixar has another new original movie opening up just a few months later in June's Soul from Pete Docter (Up, Inside Out, Monsters, Inc.).

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: Sonic the Hedgehog Dolittle
Directed by Dan Scanlon: Monsters University
Pixar: Brave Inside Out The Good Dinosaur Toy Story 4 Incredibles 2 Up WALL-E Cars
Recent Animated Movies: Zootopia The Lego Movie

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Reviewed February 25, 2020.

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