‘Onward’ review: Pixar’s animated fantasy film is another studio hit

Avery Wohleb

Even two months after Christmas, magical elves still make for an entertaining watch.

Directed by Dan Scanlon, “Onward” is an animated fantasy film produced by Pixar Animation Studios. The movie follows two teenage elf brothers, Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt), who lost their father at a very young age. Upon discovering the existence of magic, the brothers embark on a quest to bring their father back to life for one day. After a mishap with their first attempt at magic, the brothers bring back only their father’s legs, starting the 24-hour countdown to bring back the rest of his body and setting off a series of conflicts.

The movie explores waters unfamiliar to Pixar’s usual content. Mixing a fantasy world with modern technology, the concept of the film is unique and entertaining. While folktale-like moments might briefly seem cliché, an allusion to present day shifts the tone back for a bizarre and engaging story.

The animation is well done and is appropriate for the setting. The image quality is stellar, as is expected of the studio, but not overly realistic in a way that distracts from the unreal world in which the story takes place. A bouncy soundtrack consistently matches the tone of every scene, perfectly highlighting specific moments to enhance the visual experience.

Holland and Pratt diverge from their superhero roles to bring an emotional dynamic to life between two brothers. Despite having a voice recognizable from his portrayal of Spider-Man, Holland is able to engage viewers in Ian’s story with no distractions. Pratt steps down from the galaxy to become the guardian of his little brother as Barley serves as a heartwarming paternal figure to Ian. As the film tackles an array of motifs, most prominently grief and absence, the two actors give a moving performance. The outcome will surely resonate deeply with any viewer who has lost a loved one.

The writing of the movie is mostly well done. Many characters are emotionally relatable, and viewers will likely feel represented by the stories being told. However, the unique nature of the movie isn’t anything groundbreaking. Some teasing within the film, such as a side character filming a catastrophe instead of running from it, would be more effective if it was presented more directly through central characters. Pixar’s first openly LGBTQ character is introduced, but the moment’s impact is diluted by the character’s absolute bare minimum screen time. With the character’s appearance amounting to fewer than five minutes, her sexuality is alluded to only in passing.

The only fully unexpected letdown of the movie is the end of the brothers’ journey. After nearly two hopeful hours of watching the brothers on their adventure, the outcome is ultimately a bit disappointing, and the parting optimism feels forced. While viewers might hope for a happy ending, they’ll receive one in a slightly unfulfilling way. Despite this, it might be a good idea to bring tissues for the tear-jerking final act typical of a Pixar movie.

Ultimately, “Onward” is as emotional as anticipated and delivers a surprising amount of fun. Above all else, it introduces two brother elves who fit in perfectly among Pixar’s talking toys and lost clownfish as characters fans will love forever. 

Rating: 4 elves out of 5