By Abby Ramirez
On March 6, Disney and Pixar Animation Studios debuted their first movie of 2020, “Onward.” Although the film was highly anticipated by the public and was projected to be a box office hit, the coronavirus pandemic ultimately deterred viewers away from public theaters, making it the lowest grossing Pixar movie since “The Good Dinosaur.” As cinemas closed and whole countries were guided into social isolation, Disney was forced to adapt, and released “Onward” on Disney Plus on April 3.
From the get go, viewers get to immerse themselves in the fantasy world of New Mushroomtown, a place teeming with magical creatures such as elves, centaurs, trolls, and wizards. However, as technology, such as the lightbulb, developed and daily life became easier to manage, the need for magic became obsolete, and the once simple village became a metropolitan hub.
This new cityscape is the world of Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), a just turned 16-year old elf. On his birthday, his mother surprises him and his brother Barley (Chris Pratt), with a gift from their late father: a wizard staff and a spell to bring him back just for a day. Unsurprisingly, the boys’ attempts to cast the spell go awry, and they are only able to bring the lower half of their father back. As a result, the Lightfoot brothers decide to go on a quest to be able to complete the spell.
However, despite the clear beginning to a seemingly wonderous quest, the adventure as a whole ultimately gets swept aside and replaced by the relationship between the brothers. Although Ian and Barley do venture out of the suburbs and follow the map given by the Manticore (Octavia Spencer), their constant fighting and attempts to build a relationship with the legs of their father ultimately masks the escalating plot. In fact, even when audiences feel as if the plot is going to hit its climax, they instead are pulled in deeper to the mythical world of gelatinous cubes and raven puzzles.
Even more troubling than a slow plot was the subject matter itself. On paper, mixing magic, folklore, and bringing a late father back from the dead for a day may seem like a good idea. However, in reality, Pixar’s release of “Onward” seems incredibly unsympathetic towards those who have lost someone in real life. Instead of watching a film of adventure and fun promised in the trailer, many are instead taunted with the possibility of bringing back a loved one for a day, only to realize that it will never be possible in real life as the movie finishes. With this in mind, the movie becomes more traumatic than enjoyable; a reoccurring controversy in many Pixar films.
This insensitivity in a family film though not uncharacteristic of Pixar (remember the first ten minutes of “Up”?) is completely uncharacteristic of director Dan Scanlon. Over the last few years, Pixar’s release of movies and short films such as “Bao,” “Incredibles 2,” and “Coco” have spurred a great sense of cultural and familial pride, and reinforced the studios’ great reputation. These high standards, along with the incredible success of Scanlon’s last movies (“Monsters University” and “Cars”) led many to believe that “Onward” would be nothing less than incredible.
To continue their expansion of representation in its movies, Pixar also announced that “Onward” would include its first openly LGBTQ+ character: Officer Spector, a lesbian cyclops police officer voiced by Lena Waithe. Fans expected that the film would be groundbreaking for the LGBTQ+ community, only to be disappointed with Spector’s lack of screen time in the film. By falling short of these expectations, as well as the high standards audiences’ have for Pixar films, “Onward” proved itself to be disappointing and underwhelming; one of the lower tier Pixar films of the century.
However, if you are able to overlook the controversies, “Onward” is a decent stand alone film with a heartwarming message at its close. The combination of Pratt’s theatrical voice behind the man-child Barley, and Holland’s portrayal of yet another awkward, American teenager is undeniably funny, and the fantastical world that Scanlon and his team created is brilliantly imaginative and well animated. At its core, “Onward” is a Pixar film, and can be judged as such. It is a decent movie for escaping the terror and sadness of the current pandemic, or if you just need something to watch to pass time at home.
“Onward” isn’t even close to top-shelf Pixar. But judging it on its own merits, it’s an often funny, genuinely moving story,” journalist Kristen Page-Kirby wrote in the Washington Post.