‘Onward’ does fine job of building its own world

March 14, 2020

The anticipation of a new Pixar film is similar to that of an upcoming holiday. When the studio dropped a teaser trailer for its 2020 offering, I became even more interested, as it was still vague on details, but seemed to take the same idiosyncratic approach to universal themes found in its finest works ( “Up,” “Inside Out,” “Toy Story,” “Wall-E”). And while I have “Soul’s” release date, June 20, on my radar, Pixar squeaked out another film this weekend, “Onward,” with little fanfare. 

“Onward” takes place in an alternate world in which mythological beasts (elves, unicorns, dragons, fairies, etc.) live in a modernized society in which scientific progress has replaced many of their reasons to exist in the first place. Imagine “Lord of the Rings” as set in modern-day California, where Gollum is perhaps a librarian and Orcs are running the senate.

Our main elf is Ian (voiced by Tom Holland), a teen living with his widowed mom (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and layabout older brother Barley (voiced by Chris Pratt). Their father died before Ian was born, and the teen longs for some sort of connection to him. On his 16th birthday, his mother gifted him with his father’s magical staff and a crystal that would enable him to conjure up his long-lost pop for a single day.

During Ian’s attempt to resurrect his dad, an interruption leads to only his lower half materializing, thus setting forth a race against the clock to bring him back in total before the 24 hours are up. 

The plot sounds ripe for the studio, dealing with slightly headier subjects amidst the fantasy and whimsy. And like Ian’s father, “Onward” truly comes into focus in its second half. 

The opening stretch of the film is stuffed with a cute and curious mesh of the modern and the mythological. The problem is, variations of this concept have populated animation dating back to when “The Flintstones” used dinosaurs as household pets and appliances. 

It also does little beyond the standard platitudes in dealing with the loss of Ian’s dad. Yes, it’s emotional, but it doesn’t  contain the poignant shading of such subject matter as in previous Pixar ventures, leaving the audience to endure a few lightweight “Weekend at Bernie’s”-style slapstick scenes as the brothers attempt to affix a lifeless self-made torso to their father’s animated lower half. 

Once the film settles into its straightforward “Hero’s Journey” template, it springs to life and gains much-needed momentum to finish strong. 

The vocal talent is solid, though never straying far from personas of the off-screen actors. Holland is the same “aw-shucks” sweetheart from the latest “Spider-Man” films, and Pratt continues to coast as the same likeable loaf he’s portrayed since his “Parks & Recreation” days. It’s a shame that Louis-Dreyfus, an actor of considerable range, is never given the opportunity to let loose a verbal equivalent of an “Elaine Dance” with her motherly role. 

Director Dan Scanlon has been with the Pixar team since 2006’s “Cars,” and first sat in the director’s chair with “Monsters University,” perhaps one of the studio’s weakest entries. “Onward” is most certainly a stronger film once it settles into its path. 

“Onward” does a fine job of building its own world and placing some solid action within it. It’s just a shame it didn’t have more to say about it while there. And thankfully, Pixar has “Soul” to be released in just a few months, as that is exactly what “Onward” could have used just a little more of. 

  • Rob is the head of the English and Communications Department at Delaware Technical Community College, where he teaches film. He is also one of the founders of the Rehoboth Beach Film Society. Email him at

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