Original blog post here.
Onward will, through very little fault of its own, probably go down as one of the lesser Pixar movies.
And, yeah, it’s not an instant classic like the best-beloved Pixar movies. But it’s also not a complete disaster — it has a respectable 88 on Rotten Tomatoes, which puts it at 17th out of the 23 Pixar movies to date.
A lot of that — and honestly, most, maybe even all — of that comes down to the fact that Onward had the catastrophic luck to be released in March 2020 — which feels a lot longer ago than it actually was.
I probably don’t need to remind you that this was right when things were getting shut down thanks to COVID in most places.
Even though I just did…
Long story short, COVID meant Onward got a short run in theatres, a short run for digital rentals, and then got relegated to Disney Plus, and not even in the “pay extra to watch it right now, unlike all those other cheapskates who are willing to wait for it” way the new Mulan (which, incidentally, I felt was entirely adequate) and Raya and the Last Dragon (better than adequate) were.
This, in turn, meant that Onward ultimately failed to recoup its budget and has been largely forgotten about. Through, again, absolutely no fault of its own.
Like I said, Onward was never going to go down as a classic, but it’s a good enough movie that I can see it ultimately being vindicated by its availability on Disney Plus.
Starring Tom Holland and Chris Pratt as Tom Holland and Chris Pratt as a pair of Elf brothers, Onward has earned itself a special place in my heart. I’m still undecided on whether it’s a good movie. But it’s at least a fantastic idea.
As a (Greatest Living) Fantasy author, I obviously have a particular fondness for the Fantasy genre — shocking, I know. And I have a lot of respect for stories that manage to do something novel with that genre.
And Onward does indeed do that.
Fundamentally, Onward is a pretty smart concept with execution that never quite realises the promises of that concept. Basically, it’s everyday, modern life in a typically Dungeons & Dragons-esque Fantasy world that, rather than being stuck in a vaguely Medieval period, has progressed to what is essentially the present day with a few Fantastic touches.
I’ve mentioned before that one of my favourite story concepts is fantastical characters dealing with mundane problems, so I am all in on this premise.
Getting into a little more detail, the world of Onward — the On-world, if you will (I promise not to make that joke again) — used to be exactly the world we see on the tabletop in a game of D&D: magic, monsters, adventure, and, in fact, actual dungeons and dragons.
And then most of the real-world technological developments responsible for modern living in the real world happened in this world: electricity, cars, planes, phones, medical science, an education system. All the luxuries of modern living.
So, by the time the events of the movie are happening, the world is essentially on par with our world, and the film is set in modern suburbia that just happens to be inhabited by fantastical creatures.
Magic still exists, but no one bothers to use it because technology is easier. That’s basically the premise of the movie. The two Elf brothers, Ian and Barley discover a spell to bring their late father back to life for a day.
The spell doesn’t quite work, and they only manage to bring back his legs.
To paraphrase the TvTropes article: brothers failing to bring back their dead father is heartbreaking; only managing to bring back his legs is hilarious.
From there, Ian and Barley, go on(ward) a desperate quest to fix their spell and completely restore their father(‘s upper body) before the spell wears off.
Now, Onward is never going to be the Pop Culture colossus that Frozen (which, full disclosure, I initially forgot isn’t actually a Pixar movie) is, but in a lot of ways, Onward is to the brotherly relationship what Frozen is to the sisterly relationship.
Deep human themes ensue. Despite the notable handicap of the main characters being Elves…
Ian is a socially awkward nerd who just wants to fit in, Barley is a boisterous nerd who hasn’t done anything with meaningful with his life yet (and an excellent illustration of my thesis that they would still have Dungeons & Dragons in a Dungeons & Dragons-esque world), they’re adjusting to the fact that their mom is dating a new boyfriend, while also dealing with the baggage of having grown up without a father.
Like, you don’t need Elves and magic to be able to make a movie out of that premise.
It’s maybe never quite as a good a movie as Frozen and never quite delivers as powerful a thematic or emotional statement, but Onward does manage to present some deep stuff in an emotionally resonant way.
But, again, personally, I’m probably more interested in how Onward plays with the Fantasy genre. The (Sub)Urban Fantasy setting manages to be entirely familiar, yet also utterly alien and fantastical.
The family has a pet dragon that acts exactly like a dog, unicorns are raccoons, the mom’s new boyfriend is a mounted police officer who, as a Centaur, is his own mount.
There’s a lot of little touches in the world that really sell the everyday life in a Fantasy world concept. It’s great.
The movie is full of background references and sight gags to various well-known aspects of the Fantasy genre. For example, a restaurant is seen advertising Second Breakfast. It’s clear that a lot of very clever people with a lot of love and respect for the Fantasy genre were involved.
The downside is that, because Onward focuses primarily on Ian and Barley, it doesn’t really explore that much of the world at large. Granted, as disappointing as it is to see all this great world-building go untapped, it maybe actually be for the best. Limiting the plot to Ian and Barley probably allows for a more interesting, more emotional story than a movie focused on exploring the wider world of the film.
So, in conclusion: Onward may not be a masterpiece, but it’s a fantastic concept that ended up giving us a pretty decent movie.
Honestly, there’s an important lesson to be learned from Onward: if you can’t be a good movie, at least aim for being a good idea.
Copyright 2022 J.B. Norman
My other recommendations are here.
And check out my socials and my email list:
Sign-up for my email newsletter here.