What Critics are Saying about Disney-Pixar’s Onward and Why You Should Actually See It

Photo from Daily Hive.

Even though it did not seem to make a big impression on the critics, Disney-Pixar’s animated movie Onward, released March 5th in Canada, is actually a heartfelt and moving story.

Some do not think it’s among the list of Pixar’s best of the best and say that the film is not as original as the ones of the past. However, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie. Within every Pixar film, there is always something, no matter how big or how small, that anyone and everyone can relate to. We’ve seen lots of animated movies from Pixar, and even though many of them have been amazing, here is how Onward compares to them.

Photo from Disney

The movie takes place in a fantasy suburban world, where magic used to exist but all of it has long since been replaced by modern technology. The character of Barley (Chris Pratt) is the exuberant older sibling who is into Dungeons and Dragons, drives around a beat-up van with a sparkling white unicorn painted on the side of it, who is taking one of the longest gap years known to man because he refused to take the next step in life. His younger brother Ian (Tom Holland) is quite bashful and hopes that turning 16 will inspire him to make friends and take chances; he has a checklist of goals to make it all happen. Because the boys’ father passed away when Barley was just a toddler, they have few to no memories of him, which is something Ian wishes he had the most.

This all changes on Ian’s birthday, when his mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gives him a present his late dad entrusted to her: a wizard staff that provides Ian with the magical powers to perform a spell that could bring his father back for one day only. When a chaotic mishap happens and the boys mess up the spell, they only bring back the bottom half of their father and must go on an extraordinary quest to retrieve a mystical jewel in order to spend what little time they have left. You’ll have to watch the movie to find out the rest of the story.

Pixar Studios has set an awfully high standard for animated movies over the past 25 years, which is great for us, but the thought that Onward is not up there with films like Toy Story, The Incredibles, and Finding Nemo, comes from the idea that it’s too generic and has a “cookie-cutter storyline,” as most critics are saying. Others say that it felt like a knock-off Pixar movie and is one of the first that could be made by any other animation studio, especially when films like 2009’s Up or even more recently, 2015’s Inside Out and 2017’s Coco, are the ones Onward is being compared to. It has also been said to remind viewers of non-Pixar movies like The Hobbit and Weekend At Bernie’s.

Out of all these not-so-great evaluations of the movie, the consensus is simply that it lacks the Pixar touch. Whether it needs to be more creative, darker, wittier–or whatever it is that makes the companies’ productions among the few products manufactured for children that do not just milk the cows for money–it is missing for some.

Ty Burr, a writer for the Boston Globe went as far as saying, “how ironic that the Pixar film about magic turns out to be the least magical of all.” Yet he still encourages parents to take the kids to see it (or stay at home and rent it during a pandemic), because at the very least, they will hopefully love it.

I, however, think the exact opposite of what the harsh reviews have said: I think Onward a great film about the importance of family and is a surprisingly moving adventure that feels close to home. There’s a novelty akin to that of 2016’s Zootopia, with seeing non-human characters inhabit a human-like universe. In this world, dragons are pets, feral unicorns eat trash like raccoons, and the interesting mix of fairy-tale-like characters live in mushroom-shaped houses. Because the movie is centred around the idea of magic, small references to other stories, like Lord of the Rings, are buried within the film which allows older viewers to have a chuckle. A millennia-old manticore (voiced by Octavia Spencer), runs a Medieval-Times-meets-Olive-Garden-style restaurant and helps add a layer of reality to the experience.

But most of all, what makes Onward an exceptionally amazing film is what it teaches us about family. Barley avidly believes in the magic still left in the world, but this is seen as a sign of emotional immaturity. And while Ian loves his brother, there’s a part of him that can’t help but see him as a lost cause, at least in the beginning. Despite their inherent differences, or perhaps because of them, the two have affable chemistry with each other which grows throughout the movie. 

The idea for the film comes from the life experiences of the co-writer and director of the movie, Dan Scanlon. After losing his own father at age one, he learned to lean on his brother for guidance. This movie was a way for him to share his story, pay tribute to the father he never knew, but also to learn a little more about him.

Pixar is known for telling stories that resonate with people because they appeal to the truths of life, regardless of whether those stories are told through monsters, clownfish, robots, cars, or, in this case, elves. Who wouldn’t want the chance to spend one more day with lost loved ones? is just one of the many questions this movie poses about the importance of relationships with siblings, parents, or extended family. I think people who value these types of relationships will be able to make connections with the characters and to their own lives, which sometimes is the unknown best part of movie-making: being able to tell a story that lets the audience escape their own lives, yet is relatable as well.

Although Onward received reviews claiming it wasn’t Pixar’s best work but should be watched anyway is not reflective of the value that not only children, but everyone could get from watching it. These types of movies are incredibly important because children can be creative, brave, and confident, and they can have wild imaginations when they are young. When they grow up though, some of that hopefulness goes away, which is why we need these types of films, the ones that bring those colours and pictures in our childhood minds alive. Yes, Onward’s storyline may not be the most original, but it is an optimistic reminder that everyone could use a little more magic in their lives.