REVIEW: Onward is textbook Pixar, to a (wonderful) fault

There is a clear formula at work in every Pixar movie. That’s not a bad thing, especially since this formula still allows for a lot of creative freedom. When it’s firing on all cylinders, there are few storytellers better able to entertain and tug the heartstrings. When it stumbles, though, it really stumbles. Let’s be thankful that doesn’t happen

 

very often.

Onward falls in the upper-tier of Pixar movies but it fails to land a perfect score due to one nagging issue I had with it that ran throughout the length of the film. It followed the same formula as all the rest but, in this case, the seams were showing. Unlike the best of the best movies, like Wall-E, Toy Story 3, or Inside Out, I consistently felt in this movie like I was being manipulated. I could see what the writers were going for and, even though they largely succeeded, it was a little like watching Jim Henson and Frank Oz perform Kermit and Miss. Piggy. It’s still charming and funny but it’s’ also a shattering of the facade.

So what is this Pixar formula?

It’s the way all of their movies take their characters on strong, thematic journeys, where they learn who they are, face challenges that force them to grow and evolve, and eventually circle back around to where they started, changed and better for the journey. Along the way, there’s a moment (at least one) where the hero(s) suffer a great loss, a sacrifice that’s needed to make the final step of their journey possible.

None of this is bad; just the opposite, in fact. I wish more movies put as much effort into developing their characters as Pixar did. There’s not a storyteller alive, whether they’re working in movies, TV, novels, comics, video games, whatever, that can’t learn from the way Pixar crafts a story. It’s just, as mentioned, the best Pixar movies take you on that journey and you never really notice it’s happening.

Let me give you an example:

Remember that moment in Inside-Out, when Joy finds herself stuck in the wasteland of forgotten memories, meets Bing Bong and only escapes because Bing Bong sacrifices himself? It was a tear-jerker of a moment, but it was also one that, when I first saw it and every other time since, felt a bit too obviously manipulative; like Pixar knew they needed something in there to make the audience choke up; saying goodbye to your imaginary friend was the perfect choice for a movie with that premise. I can’t deny it; it was the perfect choice.

But it still felt like Pixar was working backward, saying “we need to put something here to get the audience weepy” instead of having a story strong enough either to stand on its own or to let the natural-occurring moments bring the tears in a less obvious way. In contrast, consider the scene in Toy Story 3 when Andy plays with his toys with Bonnie. It’s basically his goodbye and it’s a moment that absolutely shatters me whenever I watch it. I know it’s meant to make me cry; that’s what good stories are there to do, to bring out a response from the viewer. The fact that the moment felt natural and earned is why it’s so effective.

Onward felt like Bing Bong Dies: The Movie.

It felt like the entire story was crafted around the tear-jerker climax, instead of letting the story naturally arrive there. Maybe I’m being cynical, but it seems like the writers looked over the library of Pixar movies, divided them into two columns—the ones everyone loves, and the other ones—and decided the common denominator in the beloved films was how they all had a moment or three that made audiences blubber.

I want to be clear: I really loved this movie. It sounds like I’m hating on it but I’m not; I’m only pointing out the one nagging flaw that keeps me from putting it on the same level as Wall-E or The Incredibles. On the surface, there is so much to love…

SPOILERS AHEAD

Everything in this movie makes perfect sense. It’s one of the tightest, most focused screenplays Pixar has ever produced. Every action, reaction, decision, consequence, and idea introduced has a place, a purpose, and a payoff.

Central to the story is the relationship between the brothers, Ian and Barley. Their father died years ago, while Ian was either a newborn or still in the womb, meaning Barley is the only one with memories of him. That’s not just a random bit of character layering, that’s critical to the climax of the movie. Throughout the plot, all Ian cares about is magically bringing back the dad he’s never known. The brothers go on this convoluted “quest,” only to end up circling back around to the place where they started.

But just before you think this is all a big shaggy dog story, we get the payoff: The spell is done, the dad comes back and…Ian misses it. He misses it voluntarily, mind you; that’s important. He sacrifices the one thing he thought he needed because, along the way he realized the relationship he was desperate to experience, even if just for a moment, was really right there with his brother the whole time.

So while you might be frustrated that he was never reunited with his dad (I took my four-year-old son who wailed in sadness when he realized that wasn’t going to happen), I would point out that there can be no “reunion” when there was no “union” in the first place: Ian never knew his dad, but Barley did, and the movie establishes midway-through that he deprived himself the chance to say goodbye.

So look at what we have: Everyone goes on a journey, everyone grows, everyone gets closure, and the audience sheds some tears (I shed more than a few, I freely admit). So I guess everything is wrapped up in a neat little package!

No really, I mean that.

Sorry if it sounded sarcastic.

9/10 – Onward is a ton of fun, filled with clever world-building, charming characters, a wonderful third act action sequence, great emotional beats, and an emotionally-rich and satisfying ending.

I just wish it wasn’t so obvious where all the seams are in the tapestry.

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