Onward (2020) Movie Review

This…was…incredible. I’m really happy to be able to post Onward after it’s been out for a year now, the time right before everything shut down. I was stressed, but not seeing Onward when it was out has to be the stupidest thing I’d done in 2020. I mean, I knew I’d see it eventually. But as I mentioned in my review of their “new” newest film Soul, the virus distracted me from it, and as I didn’t mention in that review, I guess there was very little advertising. I knew the film was out. I just didn’t have a pull to go see it. Well, it’s great to give another A+ after not giving one to any brand new film since Just Mercy. I like Onward better than most critically acclaimed animated movies out there; I like it better than Zootopia, than Moana, than Inside Out and Soul and Incredibles 2 and all the Toy Story movies…I don’t think it quite beats the greats, like WALL-E, Coco, and the first Shrek…but this movie exceeded my expectations in every way possible and I can’t wait to watch it with my sister when we have a chance to. I really hope she doesn’t laugh at me when I explain to her my feelings about it.

Remember how back before there was science and technology to prove the science, humans believed certain things had a god-like magic to them? Maybe God created Earth. One day, after I die, I might find out. This Pixar production has an alternate world that expands that premise. It’s the idea, that there is actually magic around the world, or there used to be. There are still mermaids, elves, and the hint that magic used to be the way of the world. But magic was hard to control and kind of unpredictable, so technology was invented that made things easier, and the world embraced that. This got me thinking; we humans dream of magic all the time. Yet, theoretically, if we already knowingly had it for generations and it was not just hard but obsolete, would we still fully love it?

Elf Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt) definitely still does. Don’t let his bad-boy jean jacket and spiky armlet fool you, unless that is what nerds of historical card games like Quests of Yore are all about. He loves and cherishes magic, especially since at this point, in a world of screen-phones for communication, automobiles for transportation and the sacrilegious lightbulb for light, there’s no magic left. He protects this thousand-year-old fountain slated for demolition due to construction. Barley’s not the main character, though. That would be his younger brother Ian (Tom Holland). They live together with their single mom Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and, well, centaur boyfriend and officer Colt (Mel Rodriguez). It’s Ian’s 16th birthday and he feels lonely since he didn’t have the courage to invite people to his party, and he never knew his dad who died right before he was born. Laurel ends up showing Ian, with Barley present, a 16-year-old present from their father to them, to be unwrapped on this very day. It turns out their dad was into wizardry and left them two artifacts that still have magic within them, giving the possibility of resurrecting him for one single day. But when one of these artifacts doesn’t work properly and breaks, Ian and Barley have to race through the world to find a replacement, all the while finding out even though Ian’s not the magic buff, he’s the one with all the power and skill to cast spells.

Maybe a bit more of my hesitation towards this movie was I was actually very disappointed with the fourth Toy Story. I actually gave it a negative grade, due to an opening that has a phony-feeling act, too many beloved characters stuck in one place, a retconning of ideas from the third one, and sadness that felt forced. I didn’t think it was a terrible film, but…yeah, maybe it was one of the reasons I skipped out on this movie.

And you know something? I was a little hesitant about this grade, because there’s a scene beginning the second act involving the Manticore that seems to take the easy route. I felt Manticore, or Corey (voiced by Octavia Spencer) goes into a rage like the snap of a finger. There are also some moments that make the story feel like it follows established routes. But you know what? Screw it! This Pixar production was a non-stop thrill ride with one of the most clever and sweet plot flips ever put to film. There is a tale of love in this movie that never feels forced or dumbed down, and made me cry for how it captured a pure honesty about not just the situations of the characters, but the realities of everyone and what we should be grateful for. Making audiences touched is easy. But making them feel somewhat healed in their hearts, especially if you weren’t expecting it, is a whole other thing.

Onward is not a dramafest though. It’s first and foremost a parody of Harry Potter and D&D, as well as what makes these types of stories so addictive, for their spells, game cards, devout fans, somewhat silly lore, the ability for anything to happen, and magic fractured in a reality of its own. What more could you want?

The spells are a lot of fun to see Ian practice and eventually master, and the twists are so inventive yet straightforward they feel legitimate, like how medicines and upgrades can come with rough side effects. Ian and Barley are quite opposite in their tastes in fashion and passion, like most siblings who deviate in interests. Laurel Lightfoot was so much more than the worrisome mother. Corey reminded me of famous people I’ve met who I’ve been scared to introduce myself to but have turned out very sweet to strangers like me. Ian reminded me of me, and Barley reminded me of a childhood friend who was the best at sports and tech. Barley’s appreciation of what is seen as outdated and in the way of the future was not just essential to the story but felt completely real. The movie has expert story timing as well, knowing when to put Ian, Barley and their dad from the knees down in peril, or relaxation, or a small heartfelt moment.

Onward is a fantabulous adventure. Something I dislike about Pixar, and some of Disney as well, is they make us fall in love with characters, and sometimes you really want more of this world explored but they either don’t want to or wait years, unless if it’s one of the Cars movies. But there are some movies they produce that are amazing enough to feel properly complete. Onward does feel like more movies could be made to explore this world, yet I don’t feel empty without one. The action, invention and heart was resoundingly satisfying. An animated movie whose ending made me just as joyful as the ones in Coco and Paranorman, this is the newest in my list of favourite cartoons of all time.

If you like this, I’d try How To Train Your Dragon, Up, Coco, Zootopia and Soul

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