Onward (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): A passable work from Pixar Studios

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Pixar Studios Animation film “Onward”, which was finally released yesterday in South Korean theaters after several months of delay caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, did not surprise me much, and that was a surprise for me. Although the film is passable in terms of style, mood, and storytelling, its overall result is not as distinctive as the best works from Pixar Studios, and I constantly felt some reservation even while amused and entertained by a number of good moments in the film.

At the beginning, the movie quickly establishes its fantasy background coupled with modern touches. Once upon a time, the world was full of magic and wonder, but, after its various magical creatures such as elves, fairies, and trolls were drawn to science and technology, the world has become far less magical and wondrous during next several thousand years, and we see a number of amusing sights not so far from what you usually see from modern American cities and their suburban areas.

When a nerdy teenage elf named Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland) is about to begin his another day in his suburban neighborhood which is full of houses looking like big mushrooms, he has a good reason for being quite nervous. It is his 16th birthday, and he hopes to bring some differences into his daily life, but he still feels uncertain and insecure, though he always gets the full support from his mother Laurel (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and his older brother Barley (voiced by Chris Pratt).

While things unfortunately do not go as well as intended at his school, Ian subsequently gets an unexpected surprise when he returns to his home along with Barley. Their mother reveals that their father, who passed away around the time when Ian was born, left a present to be given to his boys when both of them are over 16, and, what do you know, it turns out to be an old magic staff with the instruction on a certain magic spell. As a dude who has been quite obsessed with the ancient history of magic and sorcerers, Barley is certainly excited, and he surely has lots of things to tell his younger brother, who is rather skeptical about magic.

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Of course, Ian comes to have an experience to blow his mind when he casually tries to use that old magic staff while his mother is not at home. That spell in question is really intended for bringing his dead father just for 24 hours, but, alas, probably due to his inexperience with magic, a valuable key stone happens to be broken in the middle of his clumsy incantation, and he and his brother come to bring back only the lower part of their father.

According to Barley, he and Ian need another key stone for bringing back the upper part of their father, and that is the beginning of their bumpy quest which must be ended within 24 hours. Although Ian remains skeptical and unsure, he cannot refuse the chance to see and talk with his dead father, and Barley is eager to lead Ian more into the journey he has always wanted to have along with his younger brother.

As dutifully bouncing from one narrative point to another along with its two lead characters, the screenplay by director Dan Scanlon and his co-writers Jason Headley and Keith Bunin diligently delivers good moments to excite or tickle us. In case of one humorous scene, Ian and Barley have some surprise and bafflement when they enter a commercial spot owned by an entity who is very reluctant to give them a guide for their quest, and Octavia Spencer has a fun with her seemingly imposing character. I enjoyed a thrilling chase sequence involved with a bunch of tiny magical creatures who turn out to be very tough street guys, and I also appreciate how the film slyly generates humor and poignancy from the lower part of Ian and Barley’s father, which functions as something a bit more than an object to be carried during Ian and Barley’s journey.

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Unfortunately, the film takes an easy and predictable course as entering its expected third act along with its two main characters, and that is where it becomes less entertaining than before. To be frank with you, a number of obstacles thrown at Ian and Barley will not impress you much especially if you are familiar with many other fantasy adventure films or video games out there, though the perfunctory climactic action sequence in the film has a couple of nice surprises.

Anyway, it cannot be denied that the film is supported well by its dependable main voice performers. While Tom Holland and Chris Pratt are well-cast as two mismatched brothers, Julia Louis-Dreyfus has her own small fun moments like Spencer, and it is a bit shame that their roles are mostly stuck in a functional subplot until the finale. Lena Waithe, Ali Wong, and Tracey Ullman are also fine in their brief respective moments, and Mel Rodriguez is suitably goofy as Laurel’s centaur boyfriend (My inconsequential question: how do he and Laurel sleep on bed together?)

Overall, “Onward” is not a bad animation film at all, but it is rather uncharacteristic in addition to being two or three steps down from several recent acclaimed Pixar animation films such as “Coco” (2017) and “Toy Story 4” (2019). I recommend it anyway because it does provide fun and entertainment as much as you pay for ticket price, but I must emphasize that you should not expect much this time – especially you are a longtime admirer of Pixar Studios just like me.

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