I saw Onward on VOD three months after its truncated theatrical run, and I'm reviewing it a full month later. Such is life under lockdown, where there is no longer any rush to catch a film or to talk about it. For the record, I had planned to see Onward in a theater around St. Patrick's Day, but a pandemic got in the way. The movie's posters still hang outside cinemas as a semi-apocalyptic reminder of a world that once was.
In any case, since an international crisis shunted Onward off to the side, there hasn't been much discussion about whether this is great Pixar, average Pixar, or that rare bird: bad Pixar. In a nutshell, I'd rate it average Pixar – which is still good filmmaking.
Onward's plot is simplicity itself: it's a hero's journey and a race against time. Its premise, however, is a bit more difficult to relate.
The film is set in a fantasy world populated by elves, dragons, centaurs, and so forth – yet it looks a lot like present-day California, complete with cell phones and traffic jams. This world was once powered by magic, but after decades of relying on convenient modern technology, most of these mythical creatures have forgotten that magic ever existed. Even those with wings don't realize they can fly.
Enter our hero, a gawky teenage elf named Ian (Tom Holland). His father died before he was born, and his despair over this is nearly his only defining characteristic. Well, that, and being embarrassed by his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt), a jovial D&D nerd who insists that his beloved roleplaying games are based on actual history. On Ian's 16th birthday, their mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) presents him with a wizard's staff, which their late father had secreted away just for the occasion. The brothers learn that the staff has the ability to bring their father back to life for 24 hours – magic exists! – but its conjuring crystal shatters when Dad is only half-formed. His bottom half, that is.
Like I said, the setup is complicated, and the first act drags as a result. But the rest of the story is easy to follow: the two brothers – and Dad's legs – embark upon a quest for a replacement crystal, so they can restore Dad to his fullest before those 24 hours are up. The film rolls along at Pixar's usual clip, with various supporting characters – including, hilariously, a Hell's Angels-like gang of tiny pixies – getting in the way. Unfortunately, Onward's premise allows for just two or three easily guessable endings, so I can't say that the story offers many surprises. But it's enjoyable, and it's got real heart. To compare it to its closest Pixar relations, it's far more cohesive than Brave but not nearly as clever as Monsters, Inc. It's good harmless family fun.