On Ian’s (Tom Holland) 16th birthday, he and his brother, Barley (Chris Pratt) are given a magical staff as a gift left to them by their late father, whom the former has never met. Discovering a spell that can bring their Dad back to life for 24 hours, they embark on a quest to retrieve a magical phoenix gem, with the help of Corey (Octavia Spencer), a manticore running a local adventure-themed restaurant.
Life lessons, as Pixar’s modus operandi dictates, ensue, and there is nobody who does it better than the animation studio. Whilst many animated features tend to focus on a sense of self, and believing in the power of you (whilst this is in no way bad, it’s the number one go-to for any other animation studio), Pixar’s themes range from a variety of topics, be it the acknowledgment that it’s OK to feel sad sometimes (Inside Out) or the importance of moving on when it’s time to let go (Toy Story 3). The first of Pixar’s two outings this year (Soul will be released in the summer), Outward may seem to be another animation focusing on the love of family, but intricately interweaves it with the discovery of one’s full potential (magic or otherwise).
The strength of this particular Pixar lies in its beautifully animated setting. In a fantasy world in which magic has dissipated over time in favour of modern comforts, the studio still finds a way to find beauty in what is essentially our world, but with pet dragons and elves. The creature design is refreshing, especially Spencer’s manticore, a fearsome yet majestic creature who occupies the screen with authority, and a third-act monster is imaginatively created from unexpected material, giving the movie one of its biggest laughs.
Despite this, there aren’t as many laugh-out-loud moments that you might expect, but instead a far more heart-warming excursion than, say, Cars (although this is hardly a difficult thing to do). Smartly avoiding cliché traps and wrapping the film with a neat little bow, the screenplay (by director Dan Scanlon and writers Jason Headly and Keith Bunin) instead subverts the expectations one might have of a typical quest adventure movie. Although there are pit-stops along the way, and reconciliations to be made, it’s the film’s third act that provides the most surprise, along with the most heartache.
Holland is a good choice to play the nervous, fearful teen Ian – parallels can be drawn between him and Peter Parker (the loss of a father figure, a slightly awkward disposition) – but it may be time for him to move on to other types of characters. The same can be said of Pratt, although his Barley is an entertaining character to be on the road with, but the voiceover work (save for, perhaps, Spencer) isn’t as immediately recognisable nor as warm as a Tom Hanks’ Woody.
A lack of immediate iconicity might prevent this Pixar from, ironically, achieving its full potential, but audiences shouldn’t be discouraged from a visit to your local cinema; full of heart, warmth, and some visually stunning moments, Onward may not be an instant classic the likes of Inside Out, but is an incredibly enjoyable experience with a better-than just believing in yourself message. Once again, Pixar proves to be one of the strongest players in the game.