Oscar Nominee Review: Onward

Onward (2020)
Dir: Dan Scanlon

Where is this set?
It’s a fantasy, post-magic, urbanised and modernised world. This alone is such a clever concept, setting a classic D&D-style quest in a world in which technology has replaced magic, but it’s still populated by all the mythical creatures. 

Who is going ‘Onward’?
Two elf brothers, teenager Ian and his older brother Barley, voiced by the excellent pairing of Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, go onward in a deeply personal urgent quest. They’re also joined in the cast by Julia Louis-Dreyfus as their mother, and Octavia Spencer as a manticore, among others. 

What is their quest?
A rare crystal is needed to power a staff that can reunite the brothers with their late father for a day. To acquire one they must contend with trials, monsters and each other along the way. It plays with the tropes of a classic quest with all the features you would expect, especially if you’re even fleetingly familiar with Dungeons and Dragons or similar games. The fantasy genre is ideal for animation with all the mythical characters and creatures, and the sense of adventure it brings works really nicely as a family movie. For the most part, it’s largely predictable for anyone acquainted with fantasy films, though there’s an extra layer of emotional depth that elevates the story, with a few brave choices in the final third that I found particularly satisfying. 

When did this come out?
That’s a good question, I’m glad you asked. It may have been easy to have missed this as it was released just before the pandemic took hold, topping the U.S. box office a year ago as cinemas were starting to close, leading to the theatrical run being curtailed. It was then given an early release by Disney on their streaming service Disney+ in a smart move to make the most of any residual benefits of the marketing and promotion.

How will it make you feel?
This will hit you right in the feels, it’s full of heart, subtly laying the foundation throughout for a satisfying emotional payoff by the end. Parents may take a lot from this story that’s different from what their kids appreciate, but all will appreciate the humour and adventure. I watched it as a thirty-something man on my own, one rainy day in lockdown when it hit Disney+ and I enjoyed it hugely. I like how this setting, story, and characters, allow the film to get a bit weird in places, especially with some fun visuals and concepts, though I would have loved to see the film take that another level further, there are few rules in an original fantasy like this, so maybe it leaves room for another quest in this world. Perhaps ‘Beyondward’ may happen someday?

Why won’t it win the Oscar?
The last time Pixar released two films in a year one was considered a ‘flop’, while the other (interestingly also directed by Pete Docter) won the Oscar for the Best Animated Feature. It may feel a little like history repeated itself in 2020, but on closer inspection, it’s really not the same. Firstly, ‘Onward’ didn’t ‘flop’, an unprecedented pandemic shutdown forced it to underperform. Secondly, word-of-mouth and reviews were strong, it may have otherwise been on course for a steadying in the box-office, leading to a long run, recouping enough if cinemas had been fuller or stayed open. However, when it comes to the awards, all the momentum is behind ‘Soul’, and with two other nominations, it’s a clear frontrunner against this, its fellow Pixar creation. 

‘Onward’ is nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars this year. It’s not likely to win, though in no way should that, or the Box Office takings, be taken as an indication of quality. While not up there with Pixar’s very best, it’s a great family film that seems to hit exactly where it’s aiming, nicely balancing adventurous fantasy and emotional family themes. 


5 thoughts on “Oscar Nominee Review: Onward

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