Pixar generally produces great movies such as “WALL-E,” “Up,” “Inside Out,” “The Incredibles,” and all the “Toy Story” movies. However, Pixar often produces flawed stories that are good but not great and the latest good but not great Pixar film is “Onward.”
The basic story in “Onward” is that the world takes place in a mythical world where centaurs, elves, fairies, and unicorns exist. The hero’s goal is to find a gem stone to power a magic wand that will let him see his dad for the first time.
The hero and his brother are pretty complete characters, but that’s where the story stops. The mother has no goal of her own, her friend, a manticore, has no goal of her own. The mother’s boyfriend, a police officer, has no goal of his own. Then in the end, a villain pops out of nowhere that the hero has to defeat. Because this villain only appears at the end, there’s no sense of drama, suspense, or tension whatsoever. The villain appears long enough for the hero to defeat it and that’s it.
So the biggest weakness of “Onward” is that the villain doesn’t appear until the very end and that the supporting characters have no goals of their own, so they appear flat and one-dimensional. Imagine “Star Wars” if you didn’t know anything about Hans Solo or if Darth Vader didn’t appear until the very end of the story.
Without knowing anything about Hans Solo, his appearance at the end to save Luke would feel forced and phony, which is exactly the feeling when the mother shows up at the end to help her boys defeat the villain.
Now imagine if you knew nothing about Darth Vader until the end where he suddenly shows up. Then watching Luke defeat Darth Vader would seem empty, which is exactly what happens in “Onwards” when the villain only shows up at the end.
The villain must appear early and constantly threaten the hero and the hero’s allies. The hero’s allies need goals and stories of their own to make their appearance emotionally important. Strip this away and you can see the glaring flaws of “Onwards.”
“Onwards” isn’t a bad movie, but it’s not a great one precisely because the supporting characters have no goal of their own and the villain appears so late in the story that it poses little threat before it’s vanquished. Study “Onward” for what it does right and what it does wrong. It’s a decent movie that could have been great if it had just followed the well-known story structure of every great movie before it.