Berlinale 2020: Onward

Pixar's latest, Onward, offers up a pleasingly original premise that's part Weekend at Bernie's, part Cronenberg, but the execution is all too familiar

Film Review by Jamie Dunn | 24 Feb 2020
  • Onward
Film title: Onward
Director: Dan Scanlon
Starring: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Ali Wong, Lena Waithe, Mel Rodriguez
Release date: 6 Mar
Certificate: PG

Onward is set in an alternate universe populated by elves, pixies and sundry chimaera, which was once magical but has turned rather humdrum. Unicorns used to fly majestically through the air; now they're pests that eat out of suburban garbage cans. In olden days of yore, the world relied on wizards to use spells for everything, from vanquishing dragons to lighting your front room, but over the centuries newfangled scientific innovations have made such sorcery obsolete.

We’ve seen a similar dulling of Pixar’s magic over the last few decades. The hyperrealism of CGI animation no longer feels like witchcraft, but more disappointingly, some of the spark has disappeared from their filmmaking too. While it’s a pleasure to see an original story from the once-mighty studio, rather than the recent parade of sequels, Onward can’t quite hold a candle to earlier triumphs like Wall-E or Up – although perhaps that’s too high a standard to expect any studio to live up to.

Onward does have two likeable lead characters going for it – elf brothers Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) – and a pleasingly weird premise that blends the goofiness of Weekend at Bernie’s with the body horror of David Cronenberg. Ian is a bright, timid lad, who’s so shy he can’t bring himself to invite his classmates to his 16th birthday party. Older bro Barley is less reserved. He’s like Don Quixote transferred into the body of a Dungeons & Dragons enthusiast with arrested development, who longs for the days of quests and magic.

Barley gets his wish when his little bro receives a posthumous birthday gift from their father, who died before Ian was born and while Barley was still a toddler. Stored in their attic all these years has been a wizard's staff, a gem and a parchment with an incantation on it that will resurrect their old man for a single day. When the gem shatters halfway through the spell, the boys are left to wrangle the bottom half of their father, and a race against time begins to find a second gem so that they can bring his top half back too.

It’s an ingenious setup, but a MacGuffin-chasing adventure is the kind of hackneyed plot device we expect from Star Wars and Marvel, not Pixar. Despite its rather generic story beats, there are still some pleasures to be found in Onward. The logistics of how a centaur might navigate a suburban home or an automobile generates a few belly laughs, as does the idea of a centuries-old manticore (part lion, part dragon, part scorpion) running a family-friendly restaurant based on the terrifying adventures of her past. And there’s no denying Onward has some emotional heft. After all, it’s not any old animation that can make a grown man sob at the checking off of a to-do list.

Onward had its world premiere at the 2020 Berlinale and is released in the UK on 6 Mar by Pixar