Premise: Set in a suburban fantasy world, two teenage elf brothers embark on a quest to discover if there is still magic out there.
At what point should we start worrying about the original storytelling capabilities of Pixar? While the studio remains at the forefront of modern animation and earns plenty of major awards at the end of almost every year, the studio has loaded its docket lately with sequels to its most beloved franchises, some less successful than others. Look through their recent filmography and the last non-sequel put out was all the way back in 2017 with Coco. Go back even further and you won’t find any until 2015, with The Good Dinosaur and Inside Out – a mixed bag, as the former is one of Pixar’s worst, and the latter one of its best. Granted, most of their sequels have been mostly solid (Toy Story 4 was one of my favorite films last year and won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature), but the studio’s reliance on existing property could be taken as a troubling sign.
All of this is to say that Pixar’s latest, Onward, is a bit of a letdown when put up against the outstanding standard they’ve set for themselves. Directed by Dan Scanlon (Monsters University), the film has all the potential to be great, but lacks the airtight storytelling that the studio is known for. The story centers on two elf-like brothers with pointy ears and blue skin, the younger Ian (Tom Holland) and the older Barley (Chris Pratt). Ian is a shy teenager that’s too nervous to ask his classmates to his own birthday party. Barley is living at home during “the longest gap year ever” and has an encyclopedic knowledge of magic spells and fantasy tropes. Their world is one in which magic once ruled the land, but once electricity and other modern conveniences were discovered, those talents fell by the wayside. Their father passed away before Ian was born and Barley was barely young enough to remember, so when their mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gifts him their father’s magical staff, they only get halfway through a spell to bring him back before the magical gem breaks, leaving only a pair of semi-sentient pair of his khakis.
Determined to bring him fully back within their obligatory 24-hour window ends, they set out to find a replacement stone in Barley’s retro van, decked out with unicorn panels, no less. So they embark on a quest much like one from Dungeons and Dragons or The Hobbit but, ya know, with fast food and interstates and a squadron of police in pursuit rather than a horde of trolls.
Of course, Onward contains all of the Pixar standards: great visuals and a lively color palette, fun character dynamics, comic relief, action set-pieces, and a conclusion that’s designed to make the adults cry. But where it lacks most is the unique messaging that we’ve come to expect from the studio. The script, written by Scanlon and Keith Bunin, feels almost like a paint-by-numbers of emotional beats that all Disney writers learn on their first day of orientation. And it doesn’t help that almost every hurdle that Ian and Barley face can be fixed with some new, convenient magical spell. The sequences are fun at their base points, but all of the obstacles that stand in their way just end up feeling arbitrary, like the writers needed ways to manufacture drama out of a fairly straightforward story. There is another version of this film that leans on the “technology is holding us back as a society” narrative, but thankfully Scanlon and Bunin don’t go down that route, focusing more on the power of self-confidence and the futility of living with regret.
Again, Onward is far from the bottom of the Pixar barrel. As I watched it, I certainly felt all the emotions that the film was telling me to feel. I laughed at all the comic moments – including the hilariously designed final villain. I teared up at the emotionally poignant ending (something that was surely exacerbated by seeing it with my four-year old). But I don’t think this film has the staying power, or the standalone moments that will resonate throughout the years that films like Ratatouille or Up or even Brave have. If your kids are anything like mine, they’ll have fun with Onward, but I was left wanting to see a little more magic.
FINAL TAKE: What did everyone think of The Simpsons‘ short before the feature? I was fine with the content, but those shorts are normally used to spotlight new and emerging filmmakers and unique animation styles. This just stunk of more Disney synergy.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography (bensearsphotography.com) and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.