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Onward

When I took my family to see ONWARD during its opening weekend in early March, I never would have predicted that it would be the last time I’d be able to indulge in my favorite past-time for the foreseeable future. For me, going to the movies may be considered work, but make no mistake about it, it is still the most beloved hobby that I’ve ever had. On that Sunday morning, while watching Pixar’s latest venture, laughing along with my family, I was oblivious to the fact that the landscape of cinema (and our daily lives) would soon change forever.

Our country, and indeed the world, faces a terrifying pandemic that has completely upended the way we live. And, while not being able to go to the movies hardly represents the worst of our sacrifices, it does eradicate a quintessential social and recreational activity that provides entertainment for millions on a daily basis. In an extraordinary sign of the times, many studios have made the decision to make their latest films available to watch at home, in the form of rentals and/or purchase. One of these titles, and perhaps the one that will appeal to families the most in these troubled times, is ONWARD.

From the moment that BAMBI began traumatizing generations in 1942, parental loss has been a integral part of many of Disney’s most memorable productions. While loss and grief is often explored directly on screen (I’m looking at you, LION KING ) there are other times where the death of a family member has already impacted the lives of characters, long before we are introduced to them. This is certainly the case in ONWARD. Set in a mythical world where elves, trolls, and goblins live their daily lives in much of the same ways as we do. Due to developments in technology and convenience, magic has all but disappeared.

On his sixteenth birthday, an elf named Ian (Tom Holland) and his older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt) make an astounding discovery. Their mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) had been holding on to a package that had been prepared by their father Wilden (Bryan Cranston) before he passed away shortly before Ian’s birth. Within the package is a wizard staff, a gem, and instructions on how to execute a spell that would allow Wilden to return for one full day. As a lifelong role-playing game fanatic, Barley believes he will be the one to execute the spell, but to their surprise, it is Ian who appears to have the gift of magic. Unfortunately, he only succeeds in getting half of the spell to work before the gem breaks apart, leaving them with nothing more than the lower half of their dad. That particular section of him appears to be alive and well, but obviously, the brothers want more. Convinced that they have enough time to track down another gem before the 24 hours is up, the boys set out an adventure to bring their dad back in full.

ONWARD may not find itself ranked amongst Pixar’s all time best (WALL-E, TOY STORY, FINDING NEMO), but it certainly exudes many of the qualities that has helped the studio emerge as the premiere source for family entertainment for the past 20 years. Much like Disney’s ZOOTOPIA, ONWARD is bright, buoyant, and bursting with detail and life, the animation pops even more now that it’s available to view at home in the highest definition possible. There have been so many iterations of magical worlds within the animated and live-action realms, that it is difficult for ONWARD to deliver a singular unique vision, but at the same time, it is warm, and welcoming, and stuffed with a seemingly endless array of clever Pixar Easter Eggs and references.

The voice talents, led by Pratt and Holland, help craft characters that are likable and amusing. Holland captures the essence of the angsty, soul-searching teen, while Pratt is the perfect choice to play the brash, over-the-top, and often clueless Barley. Their adventures, which include battling a motor-cycle gang of fairies, obtaining a map from a fearsome manticore, and of course, the eventual hunt for the gem itself, are filled with excitement and laughs.

The true heart of ONWARD lies within its exploration of grief, and the importance of family. While traveling with a pair of peppy pants is played for humor, in a WEEKEND AT BERNIES type of way, it’s the tender moments that the brothers share with their father that really hit home. From a gentle brush of a foot, to a dance party in the middle of nowhere, these sequences will resonate far more profoundly than any others. Be prepared, however, because there will definitely be difficult sequences for those who have experienced unbearable loss in their lives, and it may be particularly challenging for young viewers who have had to suffer through these unfathomable circumstances. At the same time, it’s a thoughtful exploration of what it means to go grieve, and highlights the importance of appreciating the things you do have once tragedy has struck.

ONWARD

GRADE: B+

RATED: PG

RUN TIME: 1h 42min

GENRE: Animation, Adventure, Comedy

STARRING: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus

DIRECTORS: Dan Scanlon

WRITERS: Dan Scanlon, Keith Bunin, Jason Headley

Brian Miller
Film Critic
Based out of Central New York, Brian Miller is a film critic who works in television, radio, and print. Providing passionate and energetic takes on every movie he sees, he looks for the best in a movie, not the worst.