One month ago, the latest film from Disney’s Pixar Studios opened in over 4,300 theaters nationwide and grossed more than $39 million in its opening weekend.
With the hopefully short-term decimation of the movie theater experience thanks to the novel coronavirus, “Onward” has gone from the biggest box office hit of March to just one of countless new films available on a streaming service in April.
The movie was one of the first major studio releases still in theaters to be available on demand for $19.99 – alongside early 2020 hits like “The Invisible Man” and “Birds of Prey” – but “Onward” has the further distinction of being the only one to move two weeks later to a streaming service, in this case, Disney+.
The latest Pixar feature follows a pair of teenage elven brothers, Ian and Barley, who go on a magical quest to spend one more day with their father, who died when they were too young to remember him.
“Onward” has an interesting hook for this seemingly simple tale, placing the narrative in a world where traditional mythical creatures like dragons, fairies and elves have traded in their magical heritage for the ease of modern living.
The success of the film requires a voice actor with the ability to make Ian a relatable, sympathetic lead character that audiences can relate to and the choice of Tom Holland strikes this tone from the outset. With Marvel’s “Spider-Man” and “Avengers” films, Holland has proven to be well adept at creating genuine earnest characters that can also carry the emotional stakes of the film.
Chris Pratt is perfectly cast as the voice of Ian’s eccentric, magical quest obsessed brother Barley, giving the character an equal infusion of Jack Black-esque enthusiasm and “Lord of the Rings” style fandom.
Relentless energy is a tricky thing to balance in a vocal performance, though Pratt finds the right balance between boundless intensity of spirit and annoyance that doesn’t overwhelm Barley as a character and sets up some genuine emotional moments in the second half of the film.
Holland and Pratt have a well-balanced chemistry that allows the primary themes of family and brotherhood to shine through despite some rocky moments in the screenplay.
“Onward” translates well from the big screen to the home viewing experience with a 4K quality transfer onto the Disney+ platform. Characters have more texture and depth visually that creates a three-dimensional look on a two-dimensional viewing format.
This works especially well during the film’s cinematic action sequences where “Onward” plays up its mythical origins with magic and mystical creatures that provide for engaging, entertaining moments.
Absent from the move to the streaming platform is the animated short film “Playdate with Destiny,” a lighthearted, family-friendly tale that marks the first crossover between Pixar and one of Disney’s recently acquired Fox properties, “The Simpsons.” While not currently on the Disney+ platform, this short following baby Maggie Simpson should be on the service eventually and is worth checking out.
The coronavirus has impacted every film studio in remarkable ways, none likely more so than Disney, a studio whose tentpole features prop up the theatrical release calendar for the entire film industry and help keep smaller theaters alive with massive family-friendly and superhero films.
A seismic shift in Disney’s 2020 slate of films has drastically impacted their theatrical model with “Onward” hitting Disney+ likely six months before it would have and anticipated hits like a live-action remake of “Mulan” and the Marvel prequel “Black Widow” delayed by half a year.
Disney spent $125 million on director Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of the popular “Artemis Fowl” children’s novels, a film slated to be released next month and now pulled from theaters entirely for an exclusive, upcoming run on Disney+.
How things play out for avid moviegoers over the next several months is unclear, but hopefully the promise of early hits like “Onward” finding new life on streaming services will stem the tide until social distancing is a thing of the past.
Until then, “Onward” is a worthwhile family-friendly feature to fill the void and something worth checking out on Disney’s exclusive streaming platform.