Whenever the name “Pixar” enters the picture, it’s hard not to approach a film with a certain sense of expectation. After all, Pixar is essentially synonymous with quality at this point. However, whether the film is a hit (Toy Story, Inside Out) or a miss (Cars, The Good Dinosaur), the one thing that you can always say about their experiment is that it is a massive swing. They push the boundaries in terms of narrative, animation, and themes. It is for this reason that Onward, the newest film from the historic company, is mildly disappointing. Despite great vocal performances and a solid third act, Onward fails to register as anything more than a tired retread thematically, visually, and narratively.
Long ago, magical creatures roamed the Earth free and wild. However, as society evolved and technology made life easier (and far less magical), these creatures settled into domesticity and modernity. It is into this world that Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) enters on his sixteenth birthday. Shy and anxious, Ian yearns to both fit in and find a connection to his father Wilden, who passed away before he was born. However, despite encouragement from his mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and his wild older brother Barley (Chris Pratt), Ian cannot overcome his fears and social anxiety. However, everything changes when he receives a gift from his late father: a wizard’s staff, an ancient magical artifact capable of casting all sorts of spells…including a spell designed to bring his father back for one day. After a mishap leaves Dad torso-less (as Barley puts it, “He’s Just Legs!”), the brothers must set out on a quest throughout the countryside to complete the spell, including confronting Manticores (Octavia Spencer), Pixies, family drama, and their own insecurities along the way.
The biggest flaw with Onward is the generic way it approaches its story. There is nothing to be found inside the film’s story that hasn’t been tackled in a litany of films to come before. Idiocracy, Stranger Things, The Goonies, Frozen, Coco and more all tackle similar themes – and better. Take, for example, the idea that technology kills magic. The entire film revolves around the premise that magic has faded from the world because the difficulty of magic has driven the citizens of the world in exchange for electricity, motorized vehicles, and cell phones. That’s all well and good, but that’s the plot of so many minor satires about the current state of the world. The “magic” (self-reliance, self-respect, etc.) has been destroyed by ease and slothfulness. Not only is this an obvious metaphor (“get off your phones and see the world around you, man”), it’s also been done to death. Idiocracy had technology dumbing down society to the point the world had devolved into a trash heap, Wall-E had BnL overrunning the world with robots to the point that waste forced humans to flee the planet, and Hocus Pocus had jokes every five minutes about how technology seemed like magic (would that Onward had even an ounce of the charm of Hocus Pocus).
It would be one thing if the film had anything new to say on the subject. But alas, the film is content making the same obvious jokes about smart phones and cars that any Guy In Your MFA could come up with. The same goes for the portrayal of a brotherly relationship – it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. There’s nothing deep, or new, or even accurate in the relationship between Ian and Barley. It’s every cliché in the book – a shy little brother embarrassed of a confident-but-unpopular older brother learns to loosen up and respect him over a literal and metaphorical journey. These are not new archetypes – well, maybe Barley, but only because I couldn’t tell if the film wanted him to be a jock or a geek or a loner-stoner (not literally, parents). But more on that in a minute. And without anything new to say on the subject, or anything particularly interesting to add, it begs the question: why tell the story at all? Especially after Disney already made a definitive sibling film that was both fresh and honest in Frozen?
Of course, perhaps the reason Onward can’t quite reach for anything deeper here is that the screenplay by Dan Scanlon, Keith Bunin, and Jason Headley, is sorely lacking. In fact, outside of 2012’s Brave, I’d call it the worst screenplay Pixar has ever written. This is the type of film with lines that aggressively and openly say the title just to do so – when the brothers begin their quest, Barley reveals he’s taped over the D on the stick shift so they can “Put it in O. For Onward!” It’s hard for anyone, even a young child, to not roll their eyes at that. And speaking of Barley, I still can’t get over how confusing he is as a character. What does the film want him to be? He’s a jock that’s obsessed with Dungeons and Dragons and is mocked by other kids in town. He’s not politically active, and yet participates in environmental protests whenever it’s relevant to the plot. He’s oftentimes mildly stupid and makes poor decisions, and yet he’s supposed to be the “street smart” one of the bunch.
None of these traits or decisions adds up to an understandable, quantifiable character. Yes, people are multifaceted, and it makes more than enough sense for a character to have contradicting traits. But Barley is such a confusing hodgepodge of traits, behaviors, and opinions, it never comes together to feel like a real person. In fact, the only time he ever expresses a real emotion is in regards to his relationship with his late father. Coupled with a series of clichéd plot choices (trying to talk to girls at school! Causing a disaster at a restaurant! Mom on her own quest to rescue her sons! And so on), a litany of consistently disappointing dialogue, and an overly-demanding bombastic score, and you have an utterly disappointing film on a technical level.
And yet – and yet – despite all of these issues with innovation, or proper storytelling, that doesn’t mean Pixar isn’t capable of finding some level of entertainment and value in its material. It’s still shockingly impressive how well these people can animate – they even manage to fill frames with hyper realistic dust particles floating through the air. Who does that? The humor oftentimes lands right where Scanlon & Company want it to, whether it’s a Pixie biker gang or the physical comedy of Just Legs Dad. Actually, I really dig everything involving Just Legs Dad – not only does this feel like an original spin on the material, the film manages to balance the character perfectly between brilliant slapstick and heartwarming pathos. There’s a dance scene about halfway through the film that fits the Pixar model to a T: funny with a sweet core. And it is still infuriating that even in a film like this, Pixar is still capable of making me weep openly. The third act of the film really turns around the downward trajectory, finding heart in the brotherly relationship, and building to an emotional climax that reduced me to a puddle over characters I didn’t realize I cared about. And that’s not to mention a series of well-executed sweet moments surrounding parental loss, from the joy of hearing stories about the parent from a random guy in a burger shop to Ian listening to his father’s tape recording and filling in pauses with his own comments, as if he’s been rehearsing a conversation with his father for years. These are great moments of real heart, and both dazzle the viewer while frustrating them that the rest of the film couldn’t reach these levels of perfection.
As for the acting, I’m not sure Pixar could have done better than Tom Holland or Chris Pratt in the lead roles. Holland in particular manages to nail the emotional complexity, nervous tension, and outright pain of his sixteen-year-old protagonist, making him a relatable high school student and entirely likable character. Pratt, meanwhile, really gives it his all to sell Barley and all his contradictions. And while no one could make lines like “You must speak with your heart’s fire” work, Pratt does come as close as he can, and I commend him for that accomplishment. Meanwhile, the great Octavia Spencer shows up in a supporting role as Corey the Manticore, a figure the brothers encounter along the way, and she seems to be having the time of her life. She deserves a break from playing the sassy best friend in almost every Oscar contender in the last ten years – let her have more fun, Hollywood! Julia Louis-Dreyfus sells what few lines she has as matriarch Laurel to the best of her ability, although it’s mostly a thankless role. Ditto for Mel Rodriguez as Laurel’s centaur boyfriend – he gets a few laughs, but is far from the biggest scene stealer. And Wilmer Valderrama shows up in a brief cameo to deliver a surprisingly poignant monologue. Who knew that the stealth MVP of a Pixar movie would be Fez from That 70s Show?
Onward is a film that fails to live up to expectations – both as a concept and as a Pixar film. It’s possible I may be too harsh on it – I walked out disappointed, but I also haven’t returned to it since seeing it in a theater two weeks before the shutdown. I just don’t have any interest. The animation is pretty, but it’s prettier in Up. The jokes are funnier, but they’re funnier in Toy Story 3. The ending makes me cry, but I cried harder in Coco. If there’s nothing enticing enough to want to give it another chance, why should I bother. Onward is not a bad movie. There are far worse things you can throw on for your kid in front of the TV. But let’s not pretend it’s anywhere near the top tier – or even the middle tier – in Pixar’s catalogue.
Onward is now streaming on Disney+, and you can rent it on most On Demand platforms.