Onward (Movie Review)
A Magical Adventure Story Without Much Magic or Adventure.
About the Film
Pixar Studios has a deserved reputation as some of the most innovative and talented storytellers in Hollywood. Their beloved films regularly defy what is expected from a “kid’s movie” by delivering well-crafted stories filled with hefty doses of heart, charm, and thoughtfulness. In recent years, however, some of the Rumpelstiltskin ability has faded. Onward is a movie about magic; but, sadly, it lacks much of Pixar’s magical touch.
Onward is the tale of a magical fairytale world that has industrialized and moved into the modern world, leaving its magical heritage behind. When two brothers (played by MCU buddies Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) are gifted a magical wizard staff from their deceased father, they embark on an epic quest to bring him back from the dead for one day. It’s a fun premise that is never fully realized. The intrigue of a modernized fairytale world is an endless sandbox to play in, but, unlike the similar inventiveness of Disney’s Zootopia, the story never goes much further than a few clever names or allusions (my favorite being that Mountain Dew is called “Mountain Doom” )
Also, this is a Pixar film, so much of the “epic quest” is sacrificed in favor of a more “adult” and introspective look at grief toward the father they never knew, or the desired closure to the relationship that they never had. On the one hand, there are a few touching scenes and the weightier themes are handled with appropriate care. On the other hand, a film about two blue elves on a magical quest to bring back the top half of their father (their first attempt only succeeded in bringing back his legs) with a wizard staff, should be WAY more entertaining and adventurous than a series of darkly lit scenes with characters talking about their grief. For the most part, this is a fairly monotone film, balancing on the razor’s edge of being just plain boring. While the lows are never too low, neither are the highs ever very high. I can’t think of any crowd-pleasing scene that I would anticipate on a second viewing. Onward is not a bad film; it’s just not a very good one, and that is disappointing. Just as the characters in the story rediscover the lost wonder and forgotten magic in their world, it might be time for Pixar to do the same.
On the Surface—(Profanity, Sexual content, violence, etc.).
Profanity: A character is called a “screw up” multiple times. There are also several “false alarms” (ie. characters that get cut off before completing a cuss word, or else use similarly sounding words in place of a swear).
Sexuality: The film has been heralded as the first Disney animated film to boast an openly gay character. The moment comes when a female police officer alludes to her girlfriend and kid. It’s another blink-and-you-miss it moment that is quickly becoming the norm. Also, another character wears a LGBTQ pride symbol on their necklace.
Beneath the Surface— (Themes, philosophical messages, worldview, etc.)
- Magic and Modernity
We need to address the large centaur in the room. This is a film about magic that is set in a magical fairytale world (characters use a wizard staff to cast spells, magical curses are unleashed, etc.). The use of magic in films is a touchy and sensitive subject for many Christian viewers. These are valid concerns, even if I do not share them. There are several ways to approach the magic in Onward. If any use of magic troubles you, then this is clearly not a film for you. On a broader level, however, this is not a film that is preaching magic or the occult. Rather, it is a story about brotherhood, friendship, and grief—that just happens to be set in a fantasy world full of mythological creatures and magical powers.
When approached from this broader level, an interesting and important theme emerges. Onward presents a world that was once full of wonder and mystery, but is now transfixed by cellphones, technology, and science. Throughout the story, the various characters rediscover that there is so much more to the world than they realized, and that the ancient beliefs that they shrugged off as mere fantasy, are actually historically true and valuable. Onward is no Christian allegory, but if viewers are able to look past the outward magical surface, there are important lessons and messages that Christians can and should affirm.
As a lifelong geek and lover of fantasy, I did get a kick out of the over-the-top and loving ode to the fantasy genre and mythology, and the unashamed enthusiasm of the older brother (played by Chris Pratt) for adventure and epic quests is undeniably endearing. Perhaps the most disappointing part about Onward is that it had the potential to be great but ultimately fell short. Pixar has proven time and time again that they know how to craft a heart-warming and thoughtful story, they just need to remember that it’s also okay to have some silly fun along the way.
Recommendation: Unless the magical elements concern you, this film is fine as way to entertain your kids for two hours. Just don’t expect it to become their new favorite film.